The rumors about the debt limit and deficit negotiations are flying this afternoon, followed, as usual, by panic on the left and the right that the worst versions of each rumor is true. “We’ve been sold out!” is the cry of the day.
And yet, it’s worth remembering that early reports are usually wrong, almost always in the details and quite often in their entirety. Why? Lots of reasons. Rumors of a budget deal could be accurate. They also could be spin; they could be trial balloons; they could be a source getting something wrong; they could be a reporter getting something wrong.
Remember, people in politics who talk to reporters usually have an agenda. If they’re leaking something, odds are that they have a reason, and that reason could very well be an attempt to influence events through publicity. That is, they could be afraid someone will happen, so they’ll try to kill it by leaking that it will happen, in order to generate opposition. On the other hand, sometimes the leaker does know exactly what will happen, and is leaking in order to influence the story about it. Given a deal, which parts to we want to emphasize? Leak those.
Or: it could be that the leaker knows that there is no deal yet, but wants to gauge reactions to a possible deal.
Or: perhaps the leaker is believes that the information is accurate, but it actually isn’t. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone on the periphery of a Washington negotiation (or, for that matter, any negotiation) is convinced that he’s a major player. And then there are the reporters. They’re competitive; they’re all looking for the scoop, and even the best ones jump the gun at times.
One more thing. When it comes to the budget, a lot of this stuff is highly technical and complex, including such seemingly obvious things as what counts as a tax increase or what counts as a spending cut. I guarantee that if a deal is reached and enacted, people will be arguing for years — quite possibly, for decades — about basic questions about the size and shape of the deal.
So my first advice to everyone is to calm down; the odds that the initial stories get important things wrong are very high even if they were based on public announcements of a deal, and they’re much higher when it’s only at the rumor stage.
My second advice to activists, however, is that once you’ve calmed down, is to get to work. If it’s a trial balloon and you don’t like it, shoot it down; if it’s a tentative deal, make sure everyone knows your position. It’s no time to be fatalists, moaning about how John Boehner or Barack Obama has betrayed you.
And to everyone ele: realize that a lot of the huffing and puffing you’re hearing isn’t meaningless posturing. It’s how the system works, and is supposed to work. Negotiators need to press for their best deal; advocates have to do the same. It produces a lot of excess, extraneous noise. That may not be appetizing to many people, but it’s actually quite healthy. It is, one might say, the sound of democracy.