Bill Clinton: I'm "very sorry," I misunderstood the timeline when I said the Bush tax cuts should be extended

Is this really the new spin? Bill Clinton, master of policy detail, is doing high-profile TV interviews in which he expounds on tax policy — and he doesn’t know when the Bush tax cuts are set to lapse?


Two possibilities here. Either his “allies” are right and his mind’s starting to slip at the tender age of 65 or the sustained screeching from Team O and the lefty base has worn him down to the point where he’s even willing to plead ignorance to get back on message.

“I’m very sorry about what happened,” Clinton said in an interview to air on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” “I thought something had to be done on the ‘fiscal cliff’ before the election. Apparently nothing has to be done until the first of the year.”…

“I really was under the impression that they would have to do something before the election, and I was trying to figure out how they would kick it to last (through) the election,” he said.

He continued: “Once I realized that nothing had to be done until the first of the year, I supported (Obama’s) position. I supported extending them last year, but I think his position is the right one and necessary for working out a comprehensive (deficit reduction) deal.”

Wait a second. Here’s what he told CNBC when he endorsed extending the cuts across the board:

PRES. BILL CLINTON: What I think they should do is find a way to keep the expansion going. And I think the– as weak as it is here, you know, unemployment in the euro zone I think is 11%. And– Germany’s doing well but the– and a lot of the smaller countries are doing extremely well, many of which are not in the euro.

But they’re trying to figure out a way to promote growth. And what I think we need to do is to– find some way to avoid the fiscal cliff, to avoid doing anything that would contract the economy now, and then deal with what’s necessary in the long-term debt reduction plan as soon as they can, which presumably will be after the election.

MARIA BARTIROMO: So does that mean extending the tax cuts?

PRES. BILL CLINTON: Well, I think what it means is they will have extend– they will probably have to put everything off until early next year. That’s probably the best thing to do right now. But the Republicans don’t want to do that unless he agrees to extend the tax cuts permanently, including for upper income people.

And I don’t think the president should do that. That’s going to– that’s what they’re fighting about. I don’t have any problem with extending all of it now, including the current spending level. They’re still pretty low, the government spending levels. But I think they look high because there’s a recession. So the taxes look lower than they really would be if we had two and a half, 3% growth. And the spending is higher than it would be if we had two and a half, 3% growth because there are so many people getting food stamps, so many people getting unemployment, so many people are Medicaid.

But– the real issue is not whether they should be extended for another few months. The real issue is whether the price the Republican House will put on that extension is the permanent extension of the tax cuts, which I think is an error.

When I watched the CNBC interview, his position seemed clear enough: Growth is paramount right now, so they should hammer out a deal early next year when the new Congress is seated to keep the Bush tax cuts in effect for as long as this economic rough patch lasts. (No deal will be made before the election with so much uncertainty about the next Congress, hence his point about putting things off.) Once the storm has passed and we’re seeing consistent expansion, then we should rescind the cuts for the rich and use the new revenue to reduce the deficit. Instead, according to his “I misunderstood” spin, he supposedly was saying that we should extend the cuts through the lame-duck session in November and December and then … rescind the cuts for the rich in January as part of a broader deal? Why does he think we’ll have enough growth by January to justify raising taxes again? Surely he doesn’t think that the eurozone’s problems will be sufficiently settled in the next six months that we won’t have to worry about new recessionary shocks in 2013.

Then again, the bit at the very end of the CNBC excerpt about extending the cuts for “a few more months” suggests that maybe he did have the timeline wrong and was looking to extend the cuts merely until the end of this year. Ah well. The takeaway: Back on message. Even if it means admitting that he doesn’t quite know what he’s talking about lately.