Losing to Win: Nobody Puts Boehner In The Corner

In light of my take on last night’s legislative shenanigans, a few very smart people have asked me, in a sense, “sure, perhaps, but do you REALLY think that’s what happened?”  Most of these objections (and the media’s narrative) suggest that Boehner thought he had enough votes for H.J.Res.66 and, upon seeing the too-close-for-comfort on  HR 6684, realized that he did not.  In other words, Boehner miscalculated, pure and simple.

This is a very good question for a number of reasons.  First, it correctly implies that I don’t really know what was going through any of the relevant actors’ minds in the days leading up to yesterday, not to mention what everybody was thinking last night.

Second, the question provokes one to think about what strategic analysis is supposed to do.  In some ways, my answer to this is classically dodgy.  Game theory is prescriptive: properly done, it informs the analyst about what one should do. Even then, it requires that you have some idea about how the other people are going to act.

More importantly, game theory is not supposed to (and generally can’t) tell you why somebody did something.  Furthermore, this statement isn’t merely some escape clause along the lines of “well, it’s just a model.”

No, the very foundations of game theory and strategic analysis lead logically to the conclusion that in some circumstances, rational/strategic behavior will necessarily not be indicative of what motivates it.  It is not too strong in my opinion to assert that this fact is the “heart” of signaling models, which have played a key role in my yammering about recent events.  (And are at the heart of the classic movie clip I posted in my previous post.)

Think of it this way: suppose (1) that everyone thinks that he really wanted to win that vote last night (I’ll come back to this in a second) and (2) that Boehner also wants to get as “conservative of a deal” as possible from the Democrats in averting (or, perhaps, in response to falling off) the fiscal cliff.  Point (2) is of course known by everyone.  After reading this post, Democrats also realized that Boehner might claim to not be able to deliver GOP votes for a moderate (much less liberal) resolution of the fiscal cliff. Accordingly, they and Obama tell Boehner “maybe you can deliver ‘em, maybe you can’t. You don’t have any reason to tell us (particularly in private) that you can.  Prove it.”

Now, point (1) of my supposition — that Boehner doesn’t want to bring out a bill that doesn’t have the votes — comes into play.  According to this supposition, Boehner would not bring forward a bill and then pull it without it getting a vote unless he didn’t have the votes.

If we really believe that we know exactly how much Boehner “wanted to have and win that vote” on H.J.Res. 66 last night, we can form a reasonably precise estimate of Boehner’s beliefs about the GOP votes heading into last evening.  But, if our belief about this is too high — i.e., if we think Boehner wanted to win (or, didn’t want to lose/pull) that vote more than he really did — the Boehner has an incentive not only to stage a dramatic “let’s vote….oh no, let’s stop!” AND he and his other policy-interested GOP colleagues have an incentive to bolster and shepherd the narrative of, “aww shucks, poor Boehner….He really screwed that one up.”  Because to say that it wasn’t that big a deal implies that the whole melodrama should be taken as simply a larger and more elaborate way of simply claiming to not have the votes.

This brings me back to the first part of the supposition.  There’s been increasing talk (and here) about whether Boehner might not be reelected Speaker on January 3rd because of all of these shenanigans.  I have separate thoughts on that, but they’re outside of the current discussion. (Short version: no, he need not fear, in my opinion.)  But this kind of talk is exemplary of the second-order incentives I am talking about in terms of Boehner and the GOP stoking (or at least not dousing) the flames of a narrative of a rowdy/uncontrollable/maverick GOP conference. The whole act of bringing up and then not taking a vote on an unpopular, dead-in-the-water tax bill is pointless unless observers think that this was costly to the man who made it happen: Boehner. 

(I might come back to discussing the apparent conflict between this and the conference’s solid affirmation of Boehner’s leadership in another post.  I’ll simply note at this point that I’m not seeing many quotes from GOP members alluding to that public support.)

(Similarly, I might revisit the intriguing point about why Boehner didn’t actually just go ahead and have the vote.  Short version: I think it might have passed.)

Well, that’s it for now. Thanking those of you who have read and questioned for pushing me to think even more about what I can and, more importantly, can’t do, I leave with you with this.