When ‘flexibility’ is not what it appears to be

Reuters caused a stir late yesterday when it reported, “Republicans have tentatively agreed to between $150 billion and $200 billion in increased revenues in budget talks, Republican Senator Jon Kyl said on Wednesday.” Around the same time, the Washington Post said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has signaled “flexibility on tax loopholes” as part of debt-reduction talks.

Reader M.J. alerted me to this Associated Press piece with an almost comical headline: “As GOP shows flexibility, Obama adopts hard tone.” (It’s this kind of ridiculous thinking that leads Mark Halperin to call the president a “dick” on national television.)

What in the world are these media outlets talking about? Well, it appears some reporters are a little confused, or at a minimum, taken in too easily by misleading rhetoric without paying attention to the details.

The “flexibility” that the media was impressed with yesterday was really just Republicans talking about trading some tax subsidies for other tax cuts. That’s all. Democrats want to end wasteful tax breaks and apply the new revenue to deficit reduction. GOP officials, including Cantor, only said yesterday that they’re willing to apply savings to “offsetting tax cuts somewhere else.”

As Brian Beutler explained well, the official Republican line, at least of yesterday afternoon, is that the party opposes ending tax breaks to lower the deficit.

In other words, zero new revenues. But the Associated Press and other outlets nonetheless interpreted this as a major concession — a storyline Cantor’s office happily blasted out to reporters.

And as Reuters reported Wednesday, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) made a point of emphasizing that Republicans had in fact agreed to new “revenue.” But he didn’t mean tax revenue.

“If the government sells something and gets revenue from it, that’s revenue. If there is a user fee of some kind and we want to raise that to keep up with the times, that’s revenue. And if you add up all of the revenues that we Republicans have agreed to, it’s between $150 billion and $200 billion,” Kyl said on the Senate floor.

But again, that’s not new tax revenue.

Republicans are playing a little game, and hoping media outlets won’t notice the difference. By saying they’re open to ending some tax subsidies, as debt-reduction talks continue, GOP leaders manage to trick reporters into connecting the two — Republicans, the misleading reporting tells the public, are showing flexibility in response to Democratic requests.

But in order for this to make sense, the GOP would have to be willing to raise revenue in order to lower the deficit. If you pay careful attention to the Republicans’ rhetoric yesterday, they’re still not.

It’s important for reporters to get the details right. Those who praised new-found GOP “flexibility” yesterday got the details wrong, and allowed dishonest Republicans to play them for fools.

Update: And now a GOP source confirms to Greg Sargent that all of these media reports were wrong, and that Republicans only want to apply savings to more tax cuts, not deficit reduction.

It’s amazing to me that so many major media outlets were so badly fooled.