Winning At All Costs Will Make Winning Costlier (Than It Needs To Be)

So, the shutdown continues.  Indeed, it seems to me that the collective conscience has accepted that the shutdown will continue until mid-October, when we can get a “two-for-one” CR-Debt Ceiling deal.  Kind of makes sense, in a sad way.

Anyway, the topic of today’s post is the uncomfortable position of Speaker John Boehner, who may very well want a clean CR. Or, more to the point, he might have truly wanted such an outcome before the shutdown.  There is at least a partial narrative to the effect that a clean CR would not pass.  The storyline is, as I alluded to in the previous post, is one of “ends against the middle,” in which liberal Dems want a “clean plus” CR that restores funding to the pre-sequestration levels[1] vote with tea-party GOP members who prefer people eating the goo out of each other’s heads to anything that might be seen as conferring legitimacy on collective governance.[2]

So, how to resolve this?

Well, I definitely don’t know for sure.  But I think the problem right now—to the degree that one thinks that the proper and properly lexicographic priority is to open the government—is entirely due to the Democrats’ stance on the CR.

Let’s be quick about this.  There is no discussion of what one might call a “CR minus,” which would (for example) fund the government at (say) 95% of the last FY’s levels.[3]

So, what Boehner needs here is a way out while saving face.  That’s basically what he is pleading for with respect to the debt ceiling. To me, Boehner is basically (and reasonably) saying “I’ll get the votes however I can, including from Dems…but I need to look like I got something out of this.”  It is important to note that, in politics, hypothetical wins and losses can count as much (if not more than) observed ones.

From a game-theoretic perspective, Boehner’s leadership struggle (as well as the reelection struggles of his more moderate copartisans) is based on the suspicion that he is not a sufficiently “true conservative.”  In signaling game terminology, Boehner needs some meaningful (“costly”) way to differentiate (“separate”) himself from Obama.

A side note: this argument can be related directly to the normal practice (at least in the US) of the winner of an election deferring his or her victory speech until the loser gives his or her concession speech, often preceded by a publicly announced “phone call” from the loser to the victor congratulating him or her on the victory and “a contest well fought.”

Here’s the deal: Obama (and arguably Pelosi) each have the opportunity to go VERY public and demand the moon.  Overplay the hand—demand not only a clean CR, but—-I dunno—a tax increase on the rich.  Let every Democrat who wishes to do so go public and disown this position as too extreme.  Then, have Obama/Pelosi sit down with Boehner and Cantor at the local Applebee’s, and come out with Pelosi and Obama mad as hell.  They need to say that Boehner won’t budge, won’t give into the strengths of their positions.  Maybe get Howard Dean to come up and give a “HEEEE-YAAHHH” for full effect.

Then Boehner takes the stage and says, look, this isn’t the thing we as good conservatives wanted here, but I think it’s time for us to come together and get to the real business of this nation.[4]  He turns and welcomes Reid, McConnell, and a few other Democrats and Republicans to the stage.  The Rules Committee brings the clean CR passed by the Senate to the floor with a closed rule, Boehner walks out smelling like roses with a solid 330-100 or so vote, and *POOF* the tea party is arguably neutered.

It has been said that the real value of the right to appeal in judicial systems is as a way for losers to “save face.” I really believe this.  Almost every collective decision has at least two components: the policy impact of the actual choice, and the reputational impacts on those who argued for and against the choice during the deliberations.  Incentivizing “fair dealing” sometimes requires the (policy) winners to “take a hit” on the reputational front.[5]

It would be sad and truly ironic if the Democrats take the “evidence” (at least strong folk belief) that the GOP overplayed its hand in 1995-96 so closely to heart that they end up overplaying their own hands in this one.

With that, I leave you with this.


[1] Sorry to bring it up again, but remember sequestration?  Man, those were crazy times.  Like when we opened the fire exit for those dudes bringing burgers back from Hardees and almost didn’t get to walk in graduation!  Except, now it’s like, they got cold hot dogs from 7-11 and we ate them while watching Full House reruns.

[2] Too strong?  Oh, I don’t think so.

[3] The piecemeal approach being pursued by Boehner is an intriguing one, but I’ll leave that for later.  For now, I’ll simply say that such a strategy smacks of “politics meets the need to be seen as active meets the desire of Members of Congress to have their trash picked up.”  Or, more simply, “panic politics.”

[4] Which is, of course, Reality TV.

[5] Note that, in classical two-party electoral competition, “taking a hit” and “declining to pounce on an opportunity to win” are equivalent.