John Boehner’s Desperate Bluff on Taxes

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

House Speaker John Boehner lost no time getting in the first shot Wednesday on taxes and the fiscal cliff, telling reporters that in order to forge a bipartisan agreement Republicans are “willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions”:

While Boehner suggested that Republicans would still oppose Obama’s plan to take “a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates,” he said the party is open to “increased revenue . . . as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all.”

It was not immediately clear whether Boehner meant that Republicans would acquiesce only to fresh revenues generated through economic growth rather than actual tax increases.

Really? That wasn’t immediately clear? I’d say Boehner was being crystal clear: he won’t accept higher tax rates on the rich, and he won’t even close loopholes unless they’re accompanied by lower tax rates on the rich. In other words, his offer is: nothing. After all, it’s not as if there’s anyone who opposes the prospect of getting more revenue as a byproduct of a growing economy.

I think the right way to interpret this is as pro-forma, job-saving bluster. Boehner knows full well that his caucus will eat him alive, with Eric Cantor leading the charge, if he wavers on taxes, so he’s adopting the same hardline position as he did last year but trying to pretend that it’s some kind of kinder, gentler proposal. It’s not. This is precisely the position that Republicans offered during the debt ceiling showdown and precisely the position they’ve stuck to ever since. There’s not even a hint of a difference.

But it’s still bluster and Boehner knows it. On January 1st, the Bush tax cuts expire. They’re gone. At that point, Boehner & Co. can agree to a deal that lowers taxes for everyone on all income under $250,000, or they can hold out for a deal that lowers taxes for everyone and lowers taxes on income over $250,000 back to Bush-era levels. However, if they refuse to make a deal, then no one gets a tax cut, and they’ll be crucified by public opinion for protecting the rich. As Dave Weigel says, voters have made that clear:

Barack Obama ran on one consistent tax promise, in both 2008 and 2012. Vote for him, and you’d see middle-class tax rates stay the same while the rate on income over $250,000 increased to 39.6 percent. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans whaled on Obama for that message. If you flipped on TV in a swing state, you heard all about Obama’s “trillion-dollar tax increase.” Last month, in a comment that Republicans derided for its gaffitude, Joe Biden repeated the claim about tax hikes and leaned into the mic, drawing out his promise: “Yes. We. Will.” For months, Republican strategists told me that they’d beat Democrats on the tax issue just like they beat ’em in 2010.

They didn’t beat Obama. Twice, in four years, a majority of voters have picked Obama for president, knowing full well that he’ll raise upper-income tax rates.

And that’s not all: poll after poll shows big majorities in favor of higher rates on the rich. Opposing a broad, bipartisan tax cut because it’s not friendly enough to the rich is a losing hand and Boehner knows it. He just can’t admit it yet, so instead he hauled out the same tired talking points from a year ago and did his best to dress them up a little differently. Nice try.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.