Treat Everything Like a Trial Balloon
Trial balloons are central to American politics, yet the idea gets very little attention from political scientists. The basic point is simple–the administration anonymously floats an idea, for example, a name for a political appointment. This can be done by a source that can’t speak on the record, or by writers who are close to administration, portraying it as the writers idea. Once the idea is put out there, the administration waits to see the reaction. If the name is greeted with praise, or at least indifference, the name is a safe one. If it’s greeted with attacks, depending on their intensity and from who they come, the administration knows appointing the individual will cause trouble, and another name can be chosen since they never admitted they were even considering the person in the first place.
This makes sense, given a central problem for all actors in the political system–nobody knows exactly what everyone else in thinking, or how strongly they feel. Watching how other people react when ideas are floated provides that information. It lets you know if your position is popular (within elite circles in Washington, which is what matters for these things) or if a particular stand would mean that you were standing alone. It’s how the boundaries of what’s reasonable and what’s off the wall are drawn. It’s how you can tell if you will be called to account for your actions and whether you’ll be able to defend them if you are. Since organizing opposition takes time, you can be sure it either won’t happen, or at least won’t happen effectively, if people don’t begin mobilizing long before a final decision, whether that means an appointment, or a legislative vote.
What’s interesting about all this is that all these problems exist regardless of whether anyone intended to float a trial balloon. It doesn’t matter if reporting merely reflects internal deliberations, or if the story was only the result of a single disgruntled staffer. In the end, the reaction to the story serves the same function.
Powerful people in Washington understand all this. They pounce on people for merely suggesting anything that threatens their interests. That’s how they keep such ideas off the agenda, so that what is actually voted on is non-threatening, making wins and losses on the merits essentially beside the point. When Social Security and Medicare were untouchable, it was because the slightest whiff of a challenge to it would bring about a massive mobilization.
Since we can’t know whether an idea being floated in intended as a trial balloon or not–since the whole point of it is to deny responsibility–and since the impact is the same regardless, the answer is clear. Treat everything as a trial balloon. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, say when it comes to talk of undermining Medicare, they are either bad at politics or trying to keep you powerless.
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