House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday, and their discussion turned to the Sandy Hook shootings. The host asked about the Speaker about his emotional reaction "as a dad," and Boehner replied with a complaint about President Obama.
"Our hearts go out to those who are the victims of Sandy Hook, or these other mass shootings," Boehner said. "I would hope the president would have focused on the bigger problem, you know, violence in our society."
It led to this interesting exchange:
TAPPER: Do you think background checks, improving background checks might be part of that?
BOEHNER: They should actually do a real background check on everyone.
It was an unexpected response. After all, a policy that requires real background checks on everyone is the centerpiece of President Obama's efforts to combat gun violence, and it's an idea that enjoys overwhelming support from Americans. But Republicans and the NRA continue to strongly oppose the policy, making Boehner's response on national television a pleasant surprise.
Alas, it was a fleeting development. Tapper later reported that the Speaker's office said Boehner misspoke, and he only supports Justice Department background checks "that are already required that are not necessarily done." In other words, when Boehner endorsed "real background check on everyone," he did not mean that he actually supports "real background check on everyone."
Of course, we can't say with certainty exactly what happened here. Maybe he misspoke or maybe the Speaker just spoke his mind and said what he believes, only to learn soon after that his genuine position is impolitic and he would have to abandon it.
It wouldn't be the first time.
The funny thing about John Boehner, which doesn't seem to get much attention, is that his political instincts are not ridiculous. In 2010, he said in a television interview that he was prepared to accept tax increases on income above $250,000 if that was all Democrats were prepared to offer. His office had to walk that back soon after, saying Boehner didn't really mean that.
In 2011, the Speaker said in another television interview that he would consider ending tax subsidies to the oil industry. Less than a day later, Boehner had to say he didn't mean that, either.
Presented with opportunities to align himself and his party with the American mainstream, Boehner does not reflexively run to the far-right extreme. Indeed, it's exactly why he said he supports "real background checks on everyone" as if it were a common-sense position to take -- which it is.
But the Speaker seems to realize soon after that he's the nation's highest-ranking Republican officeholder, and reasonable positions on controversial issues put his career in jeopardy, so he keeps having to explain that he doesn't really mean what he says.
Incidentally, in the same CNN interview yesterday, Boehner said, "We've got plenty of [gun]laws on the books. Let's go and enforce them before we just load up more laws on law-abiding citizens. Criminals don't respect the law."
If that's true, shouldn't Boehner support universal background checks?