Hey readers: They’re bluffing! (maybe)

The need to put political bargaining positions in context

Insider reporting is vital to understanding what The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib describes as the “‘Groundhog Day’ loop of fiscal crisis, followed by rancorous partisan debate, followed by half-solution” that has come to dominate the nation’s capitol since the November election. But reporters covering the White House and Capitol Hill must be cautious of sources exaggerating how committed they are to their expressed positions in an effort to obtain greater bargaining leverage.

For instance, yesterday Politico featured a story by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Jake Sherman stating that “GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point.” The Politico trio implicitly acknowledge why some might doubt the sincerity of their sources, stating that a source told them “GOP leaders are authentically at a loss on how to control members” (emphasis added).

This reporting could very well be accurate. But as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted on his Plum Line blog, the GOP also has strategic incentives to exaggerate the resolve of its members and the difficulty of controlling them in order to strengthen its bargaining position against Obama. As Sargent (a liberal) acerbically put it, “The game here is: ‘Hey, we can’t control our crazies!!! Better give us what we want before they destroy us all!!!’” It’s therefore difficult to assess the informational value of the Politico article.

What’s so strange about Politico’s credulous coverage of the GOP’s supposed commitment to allow a default is that the debt ceiling confrontation is in many ways a repeat of December’s “fiscal cliff” showdown. Just weeks ago we observed both sides staking out positions that they professed to hold sacred that were eventually traded away to get a deal done. While we can’t know at any given time who is telling the truth about their ultimate bottom line, it is likely that a similar process is taking place now.

For instance, despite all the bluster we heard from the House GOP about not agreeing to raise taxes during the debate over the “fiscal cliff,” the caucus turned out to be less extreme than they initially suggested. Though most opposed the Senate legislation that was eventually signed into law, Republicans “overwhelmingly voted in favor of the procedural rule to permit an up-or-down vote” on the deal, as David Karol and Frances Lee wrote earlier this month at The Monkey Cage blog.

Journalists should raise similar questions about President Obama’s expressed refusal to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, a position that may be sincere but one that he also has strategic incentives to express. Coverage of his assertion has also been relatively credulous. Today’s New York Times report by Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman, for instance, described Obama as “refusing to negotiate” and “dug in” to his position, but is this true in private? We don’t know. More generally, even an expressed refusal to negotiate is itself a negotiation position as The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson correctly pointed out:

Obama makes opening move in this year’s debt ceiling debate

President Obama effectively began the negotiations Monday that he had pledged to avoid, over whether Congress should raise the borrowing limit at the end of next month.

His opening bid: I won’t negotiate.

Given these concerns, reporters covering the debt ceiling negotiations should be especially attentive to how to make their reporting on bargaining positions more credible. The Politico report states, for instance, that “Republicans who know [Boehner] well believe he will never allow default, even if it puts his leadership position at risk.” Such an admission is damaging to the GOP’s interests and is thus more credible than claims that Boehner cannot control his caucus (which serves those interests).

Telling reporters to question politicians’ motives further is a surprising reversal for a media critic. Most political coverage is far too cynical about elected officials’ intentions, but these days journalists need to make sure they place both sides’ posturing over the debt ceiling in the context of a negotiating process where memories—and non-negotiable demands—are short-lived.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , , ,