Trial balloon?

中国日报网 2016-08-19 13:16



Trial balloon?Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, particularly “trial balloons”: Politicians lacking vision launch trial balloons left, right and centre in the hope that somewhere along the line they’ll get it right.

My comments:

When politicians are flying balloons around, they’re not having fun. It’s not like they’re flying kites as people do in the park.

No, nothing like that.

When politicians send what are called trial balloons into the proverbial sky, they’re instead testing public opinion.

How’s that?

The balloon in “trial balloons”, you see, originally refer to the hot-air balloons scientists send high up in the air to test the weather, such as the direction and speed of the wind.

Therefore, metaphorically speaking, when politicians are launching trial balloons, they’re really saying they plan to do this and that – to gauge and measure public opinion, to see if the public agree with them or not.

They’re called trial balloons for a reason, emphasis on trial, trial as in “a trial run”, meaning it’s tentative, temporary, not final final. In other words, if the public like their idea and agree with them, then they’ll launch their plan officially. If the public don’t like it, then they’ll just say that they are just talking, that they don’t mean to really do it.

In this case, they’ll simply scratch their plan and start something else anew.

They may overdo it, of course. When politicians are said to be launching them left, right and center, as is the case in our example sentence, you may draw a firm conclusion that those politicians don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t know what to do. So they keep making plans – keep making plans instead of implementing any.

That’s a good way to avoid doing anything real.

But then again, that’s what politics is really about, isn’t it? It may even be considered good politics.

Joking aside, let’s move on to media examples:

1. Every time you think the war on terror can’t get any weirder, it does.

In the latest manifestation, White House officials are leaking to the news media that they are considering whether to use drone strikes to kill an unnamed American in Pakistan. This behavior is bizarre as a matter of national security: If a terrorist really poses an imminent threat, how exactly does the administration have time to test the political waters before taking him out? But it is the inevitable result of a more fundamental, long-term problem with the U.S.’s use of drone strikes. President Barack Obama’s administration has kept secret the legal justification for such strikes on Americans, as well as the internal procedures to be followed in making the decision. The secrecy shrouds the drone program in a basic sense of illegitimacy. No wonder the administration feels it can’t just kill our enemies, but needs to send up trial balloons first: The whole program is operating under a bad legal conscience.

The backdrop to the current mess is the fundamental problem of secret legal opinions. In 2013, the Justice Department released a “white paper” -- not, it must be noted, a legal term -- vaguely explaining why it believed that it was constitutional and lawful to kill an American abroad if he or she was a “senior operational leader of al-Qaeda.”

- Will Obama Kill Unknown American With Secret Memo?, February 19, 2014.

2. What Mr. Trump may not have been taking into account however, is that, “He’s talking about the fastest growing electoral block in the U.S.,” Mr. Ramos told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly. Ms. Kelly, who herself had been the target of a Trump outburst which sounded grossly offensive to women’s menstrual moods, had asked whether Mr. Ramos understood why the GOP candidate might not want to answer his questions on immigration, given his bad blood with Univision. The network cancelled its deal to broadcast Mr. Trump’s “Miss America” beauty pageant on its network after his first outburst calling Mexicans in this country “criminals” and “rapists.”

“He’s talking about 16 million Latinos that will go to the polls and might decide the next election. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t like it. There are questions that need to be answered,” Mr. Ramos said.

“It’s that demographic shift that is, I believe, galvanizing the White male, and that’s why Donald Trump’s message is resonating with that constituency,” Dr. Leon said. “It’s no accident that you also see Donald Trump sending some trial balloons with a Southern Strategy, going down to Alabama and looking at the turnout that he got in Alabama.”

Republican candidates—led by Mr. Trump—are not taking these factors into account, however, when it comes to a strategy for winning the national election. “The shrinking-White-male demographic is a huge issue for the Republican Party, and a big miscalculation that they’re making is, I think that they’re still trying to galvanize that shrinking constituency, instead of recognizing that they really need to focus on the broader political demographic landscape in this country and start actually developing some substantive policies that are going to be inclusionary for all Americans, instead of trying to promote this empty, cultural identity politics that they continue to play,” Dr. Leon continued.

The Trump “bandwagon” only takes into account one half of the total electorate. “It’s all very important though, when we look at (Mr. Trump’s) numbers, we have to really understand what’s behind these numbers. Who’s being polled? Because Donald Trump is not really getting 25 or 27 percent of the national electorate. He’s getting 25 or 27 percent of that very narrow constituency of Republicans that are being polled,” Dr. Leon continued.

- Mr. Donald Trump and the dumpster of American politics,, September 1, 2015.

3. Young Americans might not get full Social Security retirement benefits until they reach age 70 if some trial balloons that prominent lawmakers of both parties are floating become law.

No one who’s slated to receive benefits in the next decade or two is likely to be affected, but there’s a gentle, growing and unusually bipartisan push to raise the retirement age for full Social Security benefits for people born in the 1960s and after.

The suggestions are being taken seriously after decades when they were politically impossible because officials — and, increasingly, their constituents — are confronting the inescapable challenge of the nation’s enormous debt.

Social Security was created in 1935 with a retirement age of 65, but since then, life expectancy at that age has increased by about six years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Today, the full Social Security benefit retirement age is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954. It then increases by two months for each birth year (66 years and two months for those born in 1955, 66 and four months for those born in 1956 and so forth), until those born in 1960 or later get full benefits at age 67.

Raising the age eventually to 70 could prove to be politically acceptable because it wouldn’t have an immediate social impact, but it would demonstrate that politicians are resolute enough to mend one of the government’s most popular social programs and to tackle the national debt.

If they did, they’d have substantial academic backing.

“For a while, there’s been a consensus among economists that raising the retirement age makes a lot of sense,” said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow and the director of the Retirement Policy Program at the Urban Institute, a Washington research group.

Still, there are potential downsides.

“There are some incredible ramifications to raising the age,” said Barbara Kennelly, the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “Not everyone can work until they’re 70.”

Despite concerns, the trial balloons are firmly anchored.

- Lawmakers want to raise Social Security age to 70, November 12, 2015,


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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