I used to run poker rooms in Las Vegas. Even taught beginners how to play, mainly so they could have fun, not lose too much, and maybe make a few bucks. So when I make comparisons to poker, I actually have a bit of experience to back me up.
The GOP keeps backing into corner after corner of late, trying to make political hay out of non-controversies. And each time they do, it reveals their motives for what they really are – keeping money in the hands of the rich, making life more difficult for the poor, and doing everything they can to get in the way of any progress.
To be fair, they were able to do it for years. In poker jargon, they were running over the table. They had figured out how to get the other guys at the table to tip their hands or fold early. It didn’t matter how good a hand the Democrats had, the Republicans would simply shove all their chips into the middle of the table, and force the Democrats to call the bluff or fold. Most often, they folded.
What happened in 2008 was that Republicans ran into a better player.
One thing you teach a beginning player is to try to read their opponent. You try to figure out what’s in their hand, and see if they have a weakness, like making the same play over and over again. And this is exactly where the GOP has gotten themselves caught in the wringer.
Their standard play has been to go all in, to make a huge play as a bluff. They never got called before. They would shove their chips in and take the pot. But now, they’ve run into President Obama, who plays the long game very well. Let’s look at some of that game.
From the get-go, Republicans made it plain that their number one political priority was to make sure the President only served one-term. Not jobs, not fixing the things that were broken in the system. Just getting rid of this new guy. Here is the first problem. It’s like sitting at the poker table, pointing at the guy across the table and saying “I don’t care if me or anyone else loses as long as I take your money”. Sound contradictory? It is. And yet, I’ve seen plenty of real poker players do it. Guess what? It never works against the good players. Why? They now know your motivation, and can use it against you time and again.
So what was the President’s first big hand to play? Healthcare. But you have to think about why this was such a great hand to start with. First, the President knew he had a fairly good hand, a good chance of winning this battle. He also knew that Republicans would throw a lot of chips onto the table, but didn’t have as good a chance at winning. But what made this a really great hand to start was the long game. It wasn’t just that Republicans stood to lose on this issue. It was that their stated mission was to block this kind of legislation and get rid of the President. For them, losing this issue meant they would have to go deeper into obstruction. They lost, and they shut down. Nothing would pass if they had anything to do with it.
In poker, patience isn’t just a virtue. It’s critical. The best starting hand in Texas Hold ‘Em is a pair of Aces. The next two are pairs of Kings and pairs of Queens. The combined probability of receiving one of these three hands is about 1 in 40. That’s it. A pair of Aces alone is 1 in 121. That means that you need to pick your hands carefully to have the best chance of winning. Sometimes, you’ll play a lesser hand because you might actually win with it. But most of the time, you’re throwing away your hand before it costs you anything.
But, you’re not wasting time either. You watch what the other players do, examine their play to see if there are any patterns, so that when you do have a hand, you can maximize your play.
Fast forward to last year’s debt ceiling battle. Republicans, as usual, overplayed their hand. They demanded heavy cuts, reduction in spending and deficit before they would even vote on a proposal. No proposal put forward by the Democrats was enough. Republicans kept pushing chips into the middle of the table. But another player was in the hand. The President called their bluff, offering a deal that had more spending cuts than the Republicans demanded. The Republicans folded. They tried to offer up smaller deals, but got no traction. Finally, they agreed to a deal that put a time constraint on more cuts. The first hand set up a second hand.
You see, the Republicans can’t seem to change up their game. They play every hand the same way – all or nothing. So when the debt ceiling deal was announced, folks on the left were up in arms that the Republicans got their way. Instead, they were sucked into a trap play. In poker, you trap another player by misrepresenting your hand, usually soft playing a very strong hand against someone you know will bluff. In this case, it was obvious that the “supercommittee” created would get nowhere, and that additional cuts would become automatic. These included cuts to the defense budget, something the Republicans are generally loathe to do. But they didn’t have the political will to make the cuts necessary to meet the December deadline for the supercommittee. So, the automatic cuts kicked in. Another hand won, with the Republicans looking bad again.
Next hand? XL Pipeline. The left hates it, the right reveres it. Despite pushes by Republicans, the President makes his play, softly, saying that more time is needed to study. Republicans push all in, again, and force an arbitrary 60-day deadline that can’t possibly be met. They think the President will fold and close the deal. Instead, the President calls their bluff, again, and rejects the deal. Republicans lose their stake again.
Now, it’s birth control. The President announces enforcement of a policy that has been in existence since the Bush administration. It boils down to this – if a church, Catholic or otherwise, has a business entity that serves the general public (not the church itself or a non-profit), they are required to offer health insurance that provides birth control. Approximately 98% of Catholics use or have used some form of birth control.
Mind you, this isn’t about making the church force birth control on anyone. If they choose not to use it, no one is going to force them to take it. No, this is about a business entity offering health insurance that includes coverage of birth control. Just like any other business. Again, it doesn’t affect the church itself or any affiliated non-profits. Generally, it affects businesses like hospitals that are operated as for-profit, serve the general public, pay taxes, etc.
And yup, Republicans have overplayed this hand as well. They are jumping in with the Catholic church, claiming that the President’s administration is attacking freedom of religion by enforcing this statute.
Sounds like the President miscalculated, right? Nope.
See, this law is already enforced in 28 states at the state level, not the federal level. It was already on the books at the federal level. There is no real controversy here. So why the announcement, if it’s already a law? Because the Republicans can’t wait to pick a fight. Even a really bad one. The majority of voters believe birth control should be part of health care coverage, regardless of the employer. Of course, women have an even higher percentage than the populace in general. But even a majority of Catholics feel this way. The Republicans are on the wrong side of the table on this, and are playing a vastly weaker hand. And they don’t have the chips to back it up. But they can’t stay away from trying to take on the President, no matter what.
So, now they’re pushing their chips in on a stone cold, blatantly obvious bluff.
The old Kenny Rogers Gambler cliche is “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, now when to fold ‘em”. Republicans just can’t seem to learn that lesson. Another poker axiom is that it is virtually a moral imperative to separate an idiot from his money. Republicans are on the wrong side of that lesson as well.