Why the fiscal cliff debate is like a poker hand — and the GOP is losing a lot of chips

Here’s how I see Speaker John Boehner’s failure to pass his own Plan B tax plan in the House last night:

Some people liken these fiscal-cliff negotiations to playing chess or checkers, as one unnamed, senior House Republican did in this excellent write-up of the post-failure mood in the House by National Review’s Robert Costa. Assuming I understand correctly why and how that metaphor is being made, I think it’s inapt because it suggests this debate is proceeding in isolation from everything else Congress has done in the past and will do in the future.

I think it’s much more like one hand in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, with the chips representing political capital. With both poker chips and political capital, having more means you have more leverage — because those who have less than you don’t have as much margin for error. They have to play it a bit safer.

This particular game of poker, in which House Republicans face President Obama and the Senate Democrats, has been going on for two years. The GOP had no seat at the table following the 2008 election and had to watch Democrats play each other in hands we’ll call the Stimulus, Auto Bailout and Obamacare. The way those hands went dictated the results of the 2010 elections, which put the House Democrats out of the game and allowed the GOP to buy back in.

Between the 2010 elections and the 2012 elections, there were a few small pots and one big one, for the Debt Ceiling. President Obama and the House GOP both put a lot of chips on the table for that one, but it turned out they were both holding a pair of 2’s and so they split the pot. (In reality, it was a bit more like the chips on the table were vaporized and everyone was worse off politically, but hey, there’s no perfect metaphor.)

Heading into the 2012 elections, each player had roughly the same size pile of chips, and a lot at stake. The victory by Obama and the somewhat larger majorities for Senate Democrats meant the House GOP’s pile was smaller than it was before. They weren’t out of the game by a long shot, but they were staring at players with larger piles. So they had to be very canny with how they played the next big hand, the Fiscal Cliff.

As the players kept making bets, the pot kept getting larger. The House GOP obviously didn’t know which cards the other two players were holding, but it knew its hand was decent — certainly not a royal flush, but we’ll say it was three of a kind (Boehner’s Plan B) with two more cards to be revealed (how Senate Democrats and then Obama reacted if Plan B passed the House). That meant the GOP could possibly wind up with four of a kind and significantly boost its odds of winning the hand.

There were signs the other two were bluffing, especially the confidence Senate Democrats were showing (in saying all day Thursday there’s no way Plan B would pass the Senate, a very good sign Senate Democrats didn’t want to have to vote it down and be seen rejecting steady tax rates for 99.8 percent of taxpayers).

Boehner seemed to believe this hand was his best bet to win more chips and thus leverage for future hands, and he put even more chips in the pot (by rolling out Plan B publicly). But before Senate Democrats could raise or call, he suddenly folded instead. In poker, no one tells the player what he has to do, but in Congress, that does happen to leaders sometimes.

As a result, the House GOP is basically left watching as Obama and the Senate Democrats play out this hand. Republicans now have a lot fewer chips, and even though a lot of them have a good feeling about the cards they’ll be holding when the next hand is dealt — the next round of the Debt Ceiling — there are no guarantees. And, with fewer chips, they’ll have to be even more careful and wily when playing that hand.

Maybe winning a comparatively smaller pot in that next hand will boost the GOP’s odds in the larger game going forward. Maybe someone else will come and sit at the table to play that hand instead of Boehner (I don’t know if the speaker erred by taking his plan public without knowing he had the votes or committed the larger sin of being unable to keep the votes he thought he had, but neither possibility bodes well for his ability to hang on as speaker). Maybe this will turn out well for Republicans.

But I don’t see how.

P.S. — No, my chief concern in this debate is not what happens to the Republican Party. But it seems to me that Democrats now are well-positioned, if they want, to make sure taxes don’t rise for good on people earning less than $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married couples) while raising them on everyone else. While I don’t think that ultimately would be good for the country, it seems likely to me that that’s what will happen at this point no matter what — which is why I’ve focused today on the politics of it all.

(UPDATE at 6 p.m.: I am signing off the blog until after the holidays, so comments will be going through moderation until I’m back on Jan. 2. In the meantime, have a merry Christmas and a joyous start to 2013!)

– By Kyle Wingfield

Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter

168 comments Add your comment

Aquagirl

December 21st, 2012
11:15 am

Play a lot of Poker, Kyle? :)

Baker

December 21st, 2012
11:15 am

Give Obama everything he wants, which as we all know includes no spending cuts, MAKE IT VERY CLEAR that this is the Obama plan. When we’re back in this same spot in, oh I don’t know, a few months, you come out and slam him for not actually addressing any problem except the, in Democrats minds, the problem of apparently not enough class warfare.

Hillbilly D

December 21st, 2012
11:21 am

To continue with the poker analogy, if you shift gears, you do it between hands, not in the middle of a hand. This hand has been poorly played, in my opinion, so might as well fold and wait for the next hand (which will likely be up by March or April).

curious

December 21st, 2012
11:29 am

It seems the Republicans have folded.

Conservative Republican

December 21st, 2012
11:30 am

You’re right, Kyle. I agree with the conservative side of the House GOP from 50,000 feet. It’s just that sometimes they don’t understand the value of a strategic retreat when you’re not holding the cards. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they want to “die on this hill”.

East Cobb RINO, Inc (LLC)

December 21st, 2012
11:30 am

The face saving way out for Boehner is to quietly allow 25 or so lame duck GOP reps to support the discharge petition and have that bill passed (he knows if that bill gets to the floor it will pass). Then he can still put on his conservative hat when making public statements that he did not support it. With a revenue part of the equation resolved, the GOP could begin to press for budget cuts. If the dems do not want to go along after that, it will look bad on them.

oops

December 21st, 2012
11:31 am

There’s a distinct possibility, with Pelosi being dealt back in, that tax rates are going to go up higher than the Clinton era tax rates.

Republican intransigents just screwed conservatives. Crazy.

Lil' Barry Bailout -OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 21st, 2012
11:32 am

Obozo is Phil Hellmuth.

Centrist

December 21st, 2012
11:33 am

I don’t think there is ANY chance Republicans are going to pass a tax reduction on only those earning less than $200,000 per year ($250,000 for married couples) in January. Obama has already moved higher to $400K, and a Politico article said he might go above $700K to get a deal. I expect we all go over the tax cliff unless there is an overall tax and spending agreement.

There is still a chance for such an agreement next week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Even it goes another couple of weeks while pressure builds even further, it can easily be made retroactive. The real sticking point is spending – Obama/Democrats want too many mirrors and smoke along with less spending cuts than real tax increases.

The media is pretending Boehner is in trouble – but his House members are just not letting the tax part of the equation to go first. It is “Deal, or No Deal” for them.

Rafe Hollister preparing for an Obamanist America

December 21st, 2012
11:33 am

Well, I thought Plan B was a game of Old Maid. Boehner was trying to stick Obama with the Old Maid card, before he exited the game. I thought he succeeded in his efforts of moving the Old Maid card, even though he lost and is out of the game. I think the Old Maid card is in Obama’s hand. He can’t put it back on Boehner as he is out of the game. Boehner has shown that negotiating with him, is wasted effort, as he can not enforce any deal he agrees with.

Obama, Reid/Pelosi now have all the pressure to come up with something that can pass the House. Boehner showed that an Obama wish list is not going to pass the house, because a watered down Obama wish list (Plan B) couldn’t pass. So, what do you do now, Barry?

The GOP is going to take the blame for the impass, but Barry will get the blame for the economic collapse. GOP loses the battle, Barry loses the war, he has to get more flexible or he and the Dems pay big in next election.

GOP needs to hang tough and demand real action to our fiscal health and let Barry keep lobbying for kicking the can down the road, once again.

JDW

December 21st, 2012
11:34 am

Not a bad analogy Kyle. Looks to me like the Republicans started with a bad hand and have played it poorly to this point. My nagging question is Boehner himself, how much of this can he withstand? Seems to me he is really a leader without a constituency at this point. It is not out of the realm of possibility that he tosses in the towel.

JDW

December 21st, 2012
11:36 am

@Rafe…”Obama, Reid/Pelosi now have all the pressure to come up with something that can pass the House.”

Nope, all they have to do is come up with something the American people support. Which coincidentally is pretty much what they have proposed so far. Then it will be up to the House Republicans to reject it at their peril.

Hillbilly D

December 21st, 2012
11:38 am

Obozo is Phil Hellmuth.

In spite of all his “act” and the Poker Brat routine, Hellmuth is actually a pretty good player.

clem

December 21st, 2012
11:41 am

with lapierre’s fiasco linked to repubs….this may be the beginning of the end

oops

December 21st, 2012
11:42 am

Why the far far right guys wanted to do something that would deal Pelosi back in, is absolutely beyond comprehension. Almost.

clem

December 21st, 2012
11:42 am

think hellmuth has over 12million in sanctioned poker winnings, not counting side games and endorsements

Lil' Barry Bailout -OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 21st, 2012
11:44 am

If Democrats are so enamored of the Clinton-era tax rates, bring them on. Bring on the sequester, too.

Otherwise the other players at the global poker table are going to know they can push us around. That’s how badly Obozo’s economic and fiscal policies have diminished our stack.

Lil' Barry Bailout -OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 21st, 2012
11:47 am

Hellmuth is actually a pretty good player.
——–

He can be, but he’s also a petulant putz who comically believes he would win more if only his opponents were more skilled.

RW-(the original)

December 21st, 2012
11:51 am

Where the Texas Hold ‘Em analogy really goes off the rails is when you’re short-stacked you can no longer play cautiously or you’ll get felted on blinds. Unless you’re saying the House GOP is all in.

Kyle Wingfield

December 21st, 2012
11:55 am

RW: I never said it was a perfect analogy. On the contrary.

That said, I guess it depends on how short-stacked one thinks the GOP is at this point.

Don't Tread

December 21st, 2012
11:59 am

Republicans have squandered many opportunities as of late. I don’t think this one will be any different. As a consequence, there will be tax increases, spending cuts to the military (as Democrats despise the military), and continued attacks on individual freedom from the people who supposedly took an oath to uphold the Constitution. (Did they specify the United States Constitution in that oath or is that just implied? Seems they’re adhering more to the Russian Constitution these days.)

Of course, the whole political system has been going downhill rapidly since Daddy Bush was president, and the slope is about to get much steeper.

Aynie Sue

December 21st, 2012
12:02 pm

The Republican politicians are as crazy as a barrel of cats! I don’t want them playing with the American economy as a hand of poker or a crapshoot.

There is a straightforward solution to this “fiscal cliff”. Since both Democrats and Republicans agree on extending the Bush tax cuts on American earning less than $250,000, and on the budget cuts proposed by President Obama, they should pass those measures now.

If the Republicans want the tax cuts extended for Americans earning over $250,000 per year, and want additional spending cuts, they should propose this in separate bills to be debated next year.

Can politicians be more devious than to refuse to enact measures on which both parties agree?

Duped again

December 21st, 2012
12:06 pm

Kyle

Decent article. The Speaker was going to use this vote to tell the people that the Dems were the problem.

Regardless of where one stands politically or on this issue itself, it was bad bad PR for the Speaker and Republicans.

Any spin won’t change the sting.

Plenty of hands to be played out by both sides before its all over and blunders on each side as well.

Just Saying..

December 21st, 2012
12:07 pm

Didn’t think it could get worse for the GOP, but with the hard Right’s intransigence, and the NRA’s (more guns in our schools, please) help, it has.
And I personally hate it. This country needs, requires even, two Partys living in the real world. It is simply amazing that, by default, most of the country now believes the only reasonable political Party is the Democrat Party. Democrats! Are you kidding?
Only Republicans, never the Democrats by themselves, could create such a perception.
Unbelievable.

H.E. Pennypacker

December 21st, 2012
12:10 pm

Rep. Boehner’s gambit follows on the heels of Sen. McConnell’s equally ineffective attempt to corner the President where he was forced to filibuster his own bill that was to raise the debt ceiling.

Everyone knew the GOP faced a post election reckoning, but few of us expected it to involve such utter and complete humiliation. For those that wondered if the GOP would reflexively tilt further rightward post election, we are starting to get our answer.

RW-(the original)

December 21st, 2012
12:12 pm

That said, I guess it depends on how short-stacked one thinks the GOP is at this point.

I guess since Washington only plays using our stacks the rules that apply to us don’t matter to them.

IT''S ALL BUSH"S FAULT

December 21st, 2012
12:14 pm

It was the idiotic Republicans that got us to this point . And the idiots that keep voting for the idiot Tea party.

Centrist

December 21st, 2012
12:14 pm

What is lost by the liberal media and leftist Democrats about the tax side of the issue is that many Republican politicians have pledged not to raise taxes above where they are now. The only way they can do so with say another tax rate above $500K in income is to claim they reduced them somewhere else and it is just a re-balancing.

They will easily be able to make that claim in January after the automatic tax rate increases for everyone who pay taxes. They can roll back tax rates for all current incomes below whatever threshold is agreed for a new, additional tax rate on the wealthy and claim to have cut taxes for the vast majority.

Educated folks know most of the additional revenue in any deal will not come from a “Buffet rule” new tax rate, but from the hidden further limiting of deductions, exemptions, and credits.

IT''S ALL BUSH"S FAULT

December 21st, 2012
12:15 pm

Kyle your an idiot. Merry Christmas.

Politico

December 21st, 2012
12:16 pm

HE

Tiberius will come on and tell you that McConnell didn’t filibuster his own bill.

Refer him to the US Senate website.

carlosgvv

December 21st, 2012
12:19 pm

It is like a poker game.

Unfortunately, the American people are forced to fold and come out even more empty handed than ever.

H.E. Pennypacker

December 21st, 2012
12:19 pm

IT”S ALL BUSH”S FAULT,

It’s “you’re” not “your”

Georgia, The " New Mississippi "

December 21st, 2012
12:23 pm

GOP Johnny Rebs and The Tea Party Aryan Brotherhood control the Republican Party. I do not think J-BO can do much of anything except continue to collect paychecks. He will be forced to walk the plank if he works with Democrats over “his kind”. Every man for himself.

td

December 21st, 2012
12:24 pm

The stack of chips go right back up if the Republicans take the following action after next year.

Propose legislation that will put the tax cuts permanently back for those making under $250,000 and pay for it with the ending of all those lib loved programs (planned parenthood, arts, Federal DOE, ect).

I would do it in a series of simple bills: Example: 5% tax cut for people making between $50,000 to $75,000 per year will be paid for by eliminating all funds going to planned parenthood. If dems do not pass it or Obama veto’s the bill then the argument is Obama and the Dems care more about abortion then cutting your individual taxes.

ByteMe - Got ilk?

December 21st, 2012
12:25 pm

“Plan B” was a bonafide blunder. To even propose it was a blunder, because everyone under the sun knew it wouldn’t make it into law, so all it did was make Republicans look weak. Which they are, but why remind everyone of it?

The best plan has always been the default plan: instead of raising a law to raise $1.2 trillion in taxes — which the Republicans hate that idea — let all the existing tax cut laws expire and start over, giving $3 trillion in new tax cuts to everyone and everyone gets to declare victory.

But nooooo… they can’t seem to just shut up and let it happen, they have to stick their chins out for the next right-cross/left-uppercut combination from Obama. Just stupid.

Thomas Heyward Jr

December 21st, 2012
12:25 pm

Naw……….a better analogy is—————
Three parties are playing 3 card gut.
The Democrat is representing the poor moocher class.
The Republicans are representing the crony rich moocher class.
And Gerard Depardieu is representing the dwindling middle class.
.
The Democrats and the Republicans are both cheating , aided by the Lamestream Media Dealer (dealing from the bottom).
And everytime Depardieu tries to leave the game……Obama the Bank turns another one of the brave frenchman’s pockets inside out and discovers another coin…….. points a gun at him and convinces him to play another round.

Uncle Billy

December 21st, 2012
12:26 pm

Let’s go over the cliff. Then in January Harry Reid can bring a clean bill to the floor to lower tax rates on those earning $250,00 or less and see what the Republicans do about it. It will make clear whom the Republicans are really concerned about.

jconservative

December 21st, 2012
12:26 pm

The Speaker has the option of simply letting the tax increase on 100% of taxpayers become the law off the land or bringing the bill up for a vote and counting on Democrats to pass the bill.

And apparently he will have the same option on the sequestered spending cuts.

This goes back to August 2011 where the Republicans made a mistake in judgment, their belief that Obama would be easy to defeat at the polls in November 2012.

For all those who have been hollering for a reduction in deficits, you have your Christmas present; in January 2013 government revenue goes up and government spending goes down.

ByteMe - Got ilk?

December 21st, 2012
12:27 pm

5% tax cut for people making between $50,000 to $75,000 per year will be paid for by eliminating all funds going to planned parenthood

More stoooooopid. I’ll bet td doesn’t know how much money is paid by the Federal government to fund planned parenthood OR how much a 5% tax cut for that particular income bracket costs. Here’s a hint, the tax cut is a many many many times larger.

JamVet

December 21st, 2012
12:34 pm

Looks like thirty years of trickle down and voodoo economics has finally turned into an avalanche.

That may finally bury the Neocon Village of Fiscal Insanity.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Aquagirl

December 21st, 2012
12:34 pm

I’ll bet td doesn’t know how much money is paid by the Federal government to fund planned parenthood OR how much a 5% tax cut for that particular income bracket costs.

You’re focused on Marxist tripe like numbers and math. How silly, everyone knows that budget debates are about principles, and as long as you de-fund whatever offends you the money thing will magically solve itself.

If we’d just pray more and bring poor expelled Jesus back to the classroom we’d be running a surplus in no time flat.

Cheesy Grits is gone but not forgotten

December 21st, 2012
12:36 pm

I’ll bet td doesn’t know how much money is paid by the Federal government to fund planned parenthood OR how much a 5% tax cut for that particular income bracket costs.

Thats one of the problems.

They dont really even understand the basic math of what we are talking about here.

They have been lied to about entitlements for so long they just assume the silly numbers in their heads are correct.

JamVet

December 21st, 2012
12:36 pm

Aquagirl, the man is a complete psychopath.

Ask him what he would ultimately like to do to women who have abortions…

Kyle Wingfield

December 21st, 2012
12:38 pm

“They have been lied to about [tax cuts for "the rich"] for so long they just assume the silly numbers in their heads are correct.”

I Democrat-ized it for you, Cheesy.

Cheesy Grits is gone but not forgotten

December 21st, 2012
12:41 pm

I Democrat-ized it for you, Cheesy.

You Sean Hannitized it.

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

December 21st, 2012
12:51 pm

A better analogy is that Plan B, the morning after pill, was aborted.

Now there’s an outcome we can all be happy about.

Especially considering that that wasn’t a pile of chips on the table but it was a pile of something. You couldn’t smell it?

Tax hikes together with spending hikes all under the Republican brand name??????

Kyle Wingfield

December 21st, 2012
12:53 pm

Aesop @ 12:51: What “spending hikes”? Plan B was only about taxes.

Just Saying..

December 21st, 2012
12:53 pm

td, here’s Speaker Boehner’s email address:
http://boehner.house.gov/contact/
Why don’t you send your Party’s Leader your marvelous solution, watch him immediately lead the Party out of a bind into the Promised Land, have Boehner forever grateful to you, and become a Party hero?
Your Nation needs you..

JDW

December 21st, 2012
12:55 pm

@td…”Example: 5% tax cut for people making between $50,000 to $75,000 per year will be paid for by eliminating all funds going to planned parenthood.”

A PERFECT example of how out of touch people are with what is really spent and collected…

The most recent funding numbers for Planned Parenthood indicate it recieved $487 million in Government (state, local and federal) funding. The federal portion of that is roughly $200 million.

There are 18.7 million taxpayers with AGIs between $50,000 and $75,000. In 2011 their aggregate income tax bill was $77 billion.

A 5% tax decrease would cost about $3.9 billion. In short using the federal funds given to Planned Parenthood could fund about 5% of such a tax decrease.

Michael

December 21st, 2012
12:55 pm

The historic dysfunction of the GOP brought about by the TP and Grover and the far right fringe elements, most of whom are from the south.