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