Health Care Reform As Poker

by Jonathan Chait | March 10, 2010

A few years ago, Tom Edsall wrote a great Diarist for TNR arguing, based on his years of playing poker in Washington, that Republicans are better players than Democrats:

Republicans are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker. Howard Baker noted that Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut was a "riverboat gamble." The GOP has consistently demonstrated a willingness to risk high deficits, especially to cut taxes that fall on their biggest donors. The party advocating preemptive war is not likely to be cowed by a big bet. Democrats, conversely, are the party of risk-aversion- -supportive of the safety net, opposed to new weapons systems, and sympathetic to protective trade policies. They are less able to tolerate the tension and uncertainty of a game in which a week's salary--or more--can be won or lost in a single hand. Another argument for the view that Republicans make better poker players is that poker rewards what feminists have long considered one of the worst attributes of men: the capacity to "objectify" the other. In poker, friends, colleagues, and even loved ones become subjects of manipulation and deceit-- sources of cash who must be persuaded to make mistakes and to misjudge their strengths and your weaknesses.
Clearly, some element of this has borne out in the health care fight. Republicans have made the fight as high-stakes as possible. Rather than offer some compromise bill, which at least one moderate Democrat would surely have jumped on, they formed a solid wall of opposition, and made reform an all-or-nothing proposition. They've played the issue with maximal aggressiveness, forcing the Democrats to cash in on a landmark bill or collapse in utter defeat.

But their latest tactic is so obvious I wonder how it could possibly work. Republicans are warning Democrats that passing health care reform will make them less popular. They are alerting the House that Senators will betray any deal they make. And they are insisting that reconciliation will be a bloody, protracted fight, even signing a letter promising to invoke the "Byrd Rule" to strike out any non-budgetary measures from a reconciliation bill.

Clearly, this is mostly a bluff. After all, Senate Democrats would be crazy to make specific promises to the House and then renege on them -- they would never pass another bill again. Democrats aren't planning to put non-budgetary items into a reconciliation bill, so Republican can threaten all they want to invoke the Byrd Rule, but they'll lose. Anyway, threatening to fight reconciliation is a threat to fight popular changes -- delaying the excise tax, canceling special deals for Florida and Nebraska -- after a comprehensive health care reform has already become a fait accompli. The GOP would be putting itself on the wrong side of public opinion to stop a bill that's already passed.

I just wonder if Democrats are actually foolhardy enough to heed these warnings. After all, as I keep pointing out, the two parties are engaged in zero-sum electoral competition. Why on Earth would you do what your opponent is urging you to do? It's possible that Edsall is right -- Democrats are so risk-averse they can be bullied into folding their hand on a huge pot just by sheer bluster. But they can't be that pathetic, can they?

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/health-care-reform-poker