What Buffett said (and what he didn’t say)

The Hill told readers this morning that Warren Buffett “indicated Friday he did not agree with the president’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires.” Around the same time, Mark Halperin ran this headline: “Buffet [sic] Seems Cool to Buffet Rule.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office has been pushing the line all morning that Buffett doesn’t support the so-called Buffett Rule.

So, what’s the real story? Did Buffett break from the White House and reject the same idea he’d already endorsed? Cantor’s office may have successfully spun the media, but the truth is far more mundane. Pat Garofalo has the transcript of the exchange on CNBC this morning that’s caused such a fuss.

Q: Are you happy you said yes [to having your name on the Buffett rule]?

BUFFETT: Sure, I wrote about it.

Q: Are you happy with the way it’s been described? Is the program that the White House has presented — a million dollars and over — your program?

BUFFETT: Well, the precise program, I don’t know what their program will be. My program will be on the very high incomes that are taxed very low. Not just high incomes, some guy making $50 million a year playing baseball, his taxes won’t change. Make $50 million a year appearing on television, his income won’t change. But if they make a lot of money and they pay a very low tax rate, like me, it would be changed by a minimum tax that would only bring them up to what other people pay.

There may be some subtle policy nuances between the White House line and Buffett’s, but they’re clearly aiming at the same policy goal. Reports that Buffett is rejecting the administration’s line are pretty misleading.

What about this notion that actors and star athletes making $50 million a year won’t see a tax change? As Garofalo explained, this is “entirely consistent with the Buffett rule, since wages that athletes earn are taxed as income (at 35 percent), not as an investment (and therefore at 15 percent) like much of Buffett’s income. It’s that break on investment income that, in large part, allows the wealthy to pay lower tax rates.”

And for Republicans to suddenly look at Buffett as some kind of ally is just silly. A half-hour after the CNBC interview, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO did another interview, this time on CNN rejecting the conservative line even more forcefully: “[T]here has been class warfare the last 20 years, and my class has won. We are the ones that got their tax rates reduced dramatically.” Even in the CNBC interview, though Buffett did not endorse the entirety of the American Jobs Act, he was asked whether he disagrees with the plan to raise taxes on those making $250,000 or more. Buffett replied, “No, no, no, no.”

Those trying to argue that Obama and Buffett are somehow at odds just aren’t telling the whole story.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.