In the approaching fight between President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress over the Bush tax cuts due to expire, did House Minority Leader John Boehner just blink?
Here's what Mr. Boehner said Sunday to CBS News moderator Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" of the tax cuts President Obama wants to preserve for Americans earning no more than $250,000 a year while ending them for the rich:
"If the only option I have is to vote for those at 250 and below, of course I'm going to do that. But I'm going to do everything I can to fight to make sure that we extend the current tax rates for all Americans."
Mr. Schieffer wasn't sure he'd heard Mr. Boehner correctly. The minority leader theretofore had been firm in demanding a flat continuation of the lower rates former President George W. Bush had pushed through Congress in 2001 and 2003 for middle-income and upper-income taxpayers alike.
But Mr. Boehner didn't back off, saying only, "I don't control the agenda on Capitol Hill" and that he hoped the Democratic leaders — Nancy Pelosi in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate — would allow "an open debate, an open process" on all the tax cuts.
"Let's let the Congress decide what the current tax rates should be, and for who they should be," he said. "I think there's going to be a chorus on Capitol Hill to extend all of these tax rates. And I would hope that we would do it."
So Mr. Boehner was saying he would still fight for keeping the Bush tax cuts for everybody, but if the effort failed he would swallow what President Obama wants — taking away the break for the most wealthy Americans, calculated by the Democrats to amount to about $100,000 for each millionaire and billionaire in the country.
Could the reason for this blink be that the perpetually tanned poster boy for Country Club America was feeling uncomfortable about President Obama's accusation that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were holding the middle class "hostage" to save the tax cuts for the rich?
It sure seemed that way. Mr. Obama had made a point of going to Mr. Boehner's home state of Ohio last month and singling him out by name several times as the Republican Party's Ebenezer Scrooge toward the country's middle class, while casting himself as the populist defender of blue-collar America.
On the other hand, the president's references probably did more to familiarize many voters with Mr. Boehner than his own previously touted speech on the economy in Cleveland, in which he pointedly spoke of his own middle-class youth as the son of a bar owner in Cincinnati.
At the White House, presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs was quick to seize on Mr. Boehner's remarks to Mr. Schieffer as a blink. "We welcome John Boehner's change in position and support for the middle-class tax cut," he said, "but time will tell if his actions will be anything but continued support for the failed policies that got us into this mess."
Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner echoed Mr. Gibbs, applauding Mr. Boehner for saying he wasn't going to hold the middle-income cuts "hostage to their desire to have us go out and borrow $700 billion from our children just to make permanent tax cuts for the top 2 percent earners in the country."
Mr. Boehner later reiterated that he still thought singling out the middle class for extending the Bush tax cuts scheduled to expire this year rather than extending all of them was a bad idea at a time of such economic distress. And Mr. McConnell immediately served notice he would hold firm on maintaining the Bush the tax cuts for the high-end earners as well as the middle class.
But in casting himself as a reluctant accepter of the cuts only for the un-rich, Mr. Boehner obviously hoped to inoculate himself from those Scrooge comparisons, and undercut the Obama allegation of the Republicans holding the middle class hostage.
The whole exchange invites another round of the old political debate: Democrats claiming to be the champions of the have-nots and the Republicans accusing the them of waging "class warfare" by pointing to their defense of the haves.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.