Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Know When To Fold 'Em

Many have likened politics to a high-stakes poker game. The analogy pervades the popular culture, as do many poker analogies.
Politics and Poker, Politics and Poker
shuffle up the cards and find the joker
Neither game's for children
Either game is rough
Decisions, decisions, like:
who to pick
how to play
what to bet
when to call a bluff!*

The ability to properly read the cards, the board, and the other players is what makes or breaks a poker player in the long run. A poor player can have amazing streaks of good luck in the flop/draw in the short run, the best player can be out-flopped and outdrawn by "chasers" in the short run, but in the long run a player who knows the odds, knows how to play the pot odds, and can "read" the betting patterns of the other players will be a consistent winner. Which is why playing poker is clearly a game of skill.**

But those aren't the only skills required to be a good poker player. Also important is the ability to alter one's play, to recognize the context of the game you're playing in, and to vary your tactics and play accordingly. This is the long-run goal-oriented game, the ability to adjust one's play to changing circumstances in varied conditions. The mindset needed to show a consistent profit in a "friendly" low-limit game is not the same as that required to consistently place well in multi-table no-limit tournaments ... as President Obama is discovering. They involve different goals, and require different strategies.

As a state senator, Obama was a regular at the local low-limit "friendly" statehouse game. Reports are that he was pretty good at it, playing what sounds like a classic tight-passive game, showing a consistent if modest profit. And in a low-limit "friendly" game with players rotating in and out, tight-passive can indeed be a good money-making strategy. And that tight-passive strategy was echoed in his legislative record, which showed no real risk-taking, just consistent cashing of "gimme" opportunities. He carried that same pattern of play with him into the U.S. Senate.

Then he reached the White House, and his playing style changed. Apparently convinced of his invulnerability by his own press and emboldened by an early victory with the stimulus bill, being the chipleader and holding the legislative equivalent of Big Slick with both House and Senate overwhelmingly in Dem hands, he changed up from tight-passive to loose-aggressive. He decided to bet big pre-flop on health care, got called, and discovered post-flop that he didn't have the nuts after all.

This is the point where a tourney player has to think twice and very carefully read the board -- and the other players -- before making their next move. Obama bet big again, and got called again, and the turn brought him nothing while improving the board. So Obama is thinking about going all-in, chasing a weak draw in hopes of sucking out on the river.

Long-time tourney players have seen this pattern of behavior many times. The neophyte player who steps 'way up in level and goes into the finals with the Big Stack and a sense of destiny, starts playing loose-agressive rather than tight-passive or tight-aggressive, and discovers in a crucial big-money hand that the other players can also read the board, know the odds better than he does, and don't bluff that easily. Especially when they're already pot-committed.

Obama has the remaining advantage -- for the moment -- of the Big Stack considering an all-in bet. His going all-in will not wipe him out. If he loses the hand on the river from chasing the suckout, he'll still have some chips left. But he'll definitely be on the shortstack, and he should remember that before betting big into the river.

But even if he hits the suckout and wins, he will have damaged himself. Every player in town will know of his tendency to bluff and chase, rather than playing tight. And it's still a LONG way to the final table. A top-level player knows that even if you've invested heavily in the pot there are times the smart thing to do is to give up the chase and fold 'em, not push in against a made hand. Maybe Obama should try listening to some of that redneck Bitter Clinger music, because Kenny Rogers has some advice for him. As does Sheldon Harnick.
and politics
you've gotta have
That slippery
You've gotta have
the cards!

* -- Politics and Poker, from the immensely underappreciated Pulitzer-winning 1959 Broadway musical Fiorello!, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.

** -- WARNING: The Sturgeon General has determined that playing real-money poker without a sound grasp of the fundamentals is hazardous to your finances, though those so doing are extremely welcome in real-money play by players who DO grasp said fundamentals.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More or Less

I'd like to have posted here sooner, but just as MW has things going on, so do I. Though I suspect he's having a better time than I am right now. In any case, some reflections on the Tea Party phenomena...

To hear the panicked left tell it in their best Alinskyite echoes, the Tea Party Movement (TPM) is just the latest lemming-rush of evil crazed Republican right-wingers, driven into a frenzied angst by the ascendancy of the One True Faith in Washington.

Certainly the GOP would love to rope the TPM in and harness them to the party wheel, but the leftist view just ain't so. With very few exceptions, the TPM people are keeping a notable distance from the GOP establishment. Nor is there any true central organization of the TPM to be co-opted, despite some concerted efforts on the part of the GOP to create and insert one for roping/branding purposes. The TPM remains a decentralized conglomeration of independent organizations.

A good starting place is Glenn Reynolds' recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Ever to the point, Reynolds opens with:
There were promises of transparency and of a new kind of collaborative politics where establishment figures listened to ordinary Americans. We were going to see net spending cuts, tax cuts for nearly all Americans, an end to earmarks, legislation posted online for the public to review before it is signed into law, and a line-by-line review of the federal budget to remove wasteful programs.

These weren't the tea-party platforms I heard discussed in Nashville last weekend. They were the campaign promises of Barack Obama in 2008.

Mr. Obama made those promises because the ideas they represented were popular with average Americans. So popular, it turns out, that average Americans are organizing themselves in pursuit of the kind of good government Mr. Obama promised, but has not delivered. And that, in a nutshell, was the feel of the National Tea Party Convention. The political elites have failed, and citizens are stepping in to pick up the slack.

Indeed. Being naturaly curious, I have over the last year attended a few TPM events. What I found did not fit neatly into stereotypes. The attendees ranged from disillusioned Democrats who felt they got "took" in 2008 to dedicated Libertarians, with the usual presence of fringe nutburgers always found in large gatherings. Birthers and Truthers were both to be found, but not in quantity, and they were oft-scoffed at and avoided by most of the crowd.

So what do the Tea Partiers really want? That was my focus. What I found can be summed up in a single word. Less.

Less borrowing. Less spending. Less taxes. Less regulation. Less corruption. Less extreme partisanship. Less "social engineering" -- from EITHER side of the aisle. Less power-grabbing for special interests. And, most especially, less government intrusion into every single aspect of our lives.


It seems that despite the generational de-emphasis of civics in American education, once you leave the extremes of the American polity, those in between still grasp the basics of the American system as expressed in the Constitution. And they want it back from the Frankensteinian behemoth that it has become. They want less.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Holiday, India Tour, Blogsitting, New Contributor, Newark Airport, Dogma

Your loyal blogger is sitting in Newark Airport on a three hour layover. With a five hour flight behind and a fourteen hour flight ahead, we begin a three week holiday touring northern India and Nepal. Subject to the limitations of intertube availability, technology, time, and patience, I intend to post here during the trip. The road to hell being paved as it is, no guarantees. If past is prologue, DWSUWF can be expected to go dark until I return, as it has in previous trips.

So we will try something different. I've invited Tully of Flyover Notes to blog-sit while I am gone and to continue posting here as long as he is interested. I know Tully primarily as commenter at Donklephant and here, where he sometimes agrees with me and sometimes does not. Hey – nobody is perfect. In all cases, I always appreciate his analysis and writing. He also understands the merits of voting consistently for divided government (although not quite as obsessive about it as me - but then - no one is quite as obsessive about it as me). In fact, I've quoted him on the subject in a reference post:

"It’s the principle of pluralism in action, it’s very real, and it was designed to be contentious and slow-moving for very good reasons. We have always been a divided people, and many issues have no ideological middle ground available, so the system is designed to produce incremental changes rather than sweeping changes. The Founders already had some experience with the pitfalls of democracy as then practiced in England. They didn’t want a repeat... They did their best to provide a system that allowed for incremental compromise to prevail over abrupt changes. It’s messy, it’s contentious, it’s flawed, it’s ugly in operation–but it mostly does the job." - Tully

I tried this once before. I invited my brother HDW to blog-sit and guest post during a travel adventure two years ago, and he remains an authorized contributor for this blog. The casual reader may not have noticed, since he has never actually posted anything here. However, he does frequently threaten to write a post entitled “Every Dogma Has It's Day” - in which I expect he will dogmatically excoriate my dogmatic allegiance to the divided government dogma. Ironically he will also dogmatically claim to be an independent, despite a perfect record of dogmatic voting for only Democratic candidates to federal office for his entire dogmatic voting life.

I expect this election year “divided government” will be a hot topic, and the blog would benefit by adding other voices. Let's see how it goes. For any interested in trip, I will be posting pictures and notes from the trip on my other blog. Same caveats apply.


Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


UPDATED: 31-August-10
You see her in the distance running toward you on the beach. It's really her - Divided Government. You've missed her. She looks so great, so tempting, so desirable, but she is so far away. She appears to be getting closer, but... Why is she running in slow motion? Is she real or is it all a dream?

Divided Government occurs in the US federal government when the party that controls the executive does not command majorities in both branches of the legislature. To restore divided government in the mid-terms, Republicans would have to retake the majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. That means a shift of 40 seats in the House, or 10 seats in the Senate or both. A tall order. Yet, in the wake of the Scott Brown election to the Senate, the punditocracy are beginning to speculate on how divided government would affect the Obama administration.

Dana Millbanks riffs on a Joe Biden quote, and wonders if Obama would have greater legislative success while improving his reelection prospects, if divided government was restored in 2010:
"Under a divided government, party purists on both sides have less leverage to block compromise. This may help to explain the counterintuitive finding by Yale political scientist David Mayhew, who determined in his study "Divided We Govern" that unified governments were no more likely to produce substantial legislation than divided ones.

Few would regard the government shutdown of 1995 as the good old days in American government. But in retrospect, Bill Clinton may not have been able to triangulate himself to victory in '96 if he couldn't campaign against the Republican Congress -- and he may not have been able to return the federal budget to balance without Republicans to cut the deal in '97."
Interesting that she invokes Mayhew. During the campaign, DWSUWF wondered how the Mayhew concept of a "pervasive public appetite for change" might impact major policy initiatives like healthcare reform and energy policy under one party rule.

More interesting than speculation on how divided government would affect the administration, is the question of whether and when it could happen.

Is there a plausible scenario where divided government might be restored in the 2010 midterms? When DWSUWF looked at this question after the election, and again last year, we concluded - "No". There was no reasonable probability of restoring divided government in 2010. The GOP were in too deep a hole to get out in once cycle. But then... there was no reasonable probability of Scott Brown winning the Massachusetts Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy.

This is the real message of Scott Brown's win. What was improbable, becomes possible. Instead of asking "What will happen?" - the question for Republicans and Independents becomes "How do we make this happen?" How can divided government be restored in the 2010 midterms?

Most think the best chance is the House of Representatives, since all representatives run for re-election every year. History says otherwise. Gerrymandering, the crushing re-election rate for incumbents, and voter affection for their own representative while loathing Congress as a whole, all conspire to make the 40 seat House differential virtually insurmountable. The best chance is the Senate, and it is not much of a chance.

With Scott Brown in the Senate, the Republicans still need 10 in 10. Ten more seats in 2010.

Can they get there? Lets sample conventional blogospheric wisdom:

Charlie Cook:
"I suspect a Republican gain of five to seven seats, predicated on Democrats being unlikely to capture any more than one, at most, Toss up GOP Senate seats (the open seats of Sens. Jim Bunning in Kentucky, Kit Bond in Missouri, Judd Gregg in New Hampshire and George Voinovich in Ohio) and not being able to hold onto more than one, at most, of the five Democratic Toss ups (Sens. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, Michael Bennet in Colorado, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Harry Reid in Nevada and the open seat of Roland Burris in Illinois). The open Democratic seats in Delaware and North Dakota are goners."
Nate Silver:
"Right now, the program is showing that Democrats will retain an average of 54.7 seats in the 112th Congress... And things could, potentially, get a whole lot worse than that; the program recognizes that the outcome of the different races are correlated based on changes in the national environment. Between the surprise in Massachusetts, and races like California and Indiana which are potentially coming into play, there's about a 6-7 percent chance that Republicans could actually take control of the Senate, and another 6 percent chance or so that they could wind up with a 50-50 split."
Marc Ambinder:
"Democrats might lose the seats formerly occupied by Biden (DE), Obama (IL), Reid (NV), and they've lost the Kennedy seat. Beyond these nifty talking points, though, there's not much of a case to me made just yet that Republicans can win eight seats."
Daniel Larison:
"There are three midterm elections in the last sixty years in which the party not in control of the White House picked up 8+ Senate seats: 1958 (16), 1986 (8) and 1994 (8). Two of these are sixth-year midterm results, and so are not necessarily comparable to the middle of Obama’s first term. I have covered why this year is not like 1994 for the House, but even if the Senate elections somehow produced the same result as in ‘94 the GOP could not regain control of the Senate. To argue that the GOP can win a Senate majority, one would have to argue that the ‘10 midterms are going to be even worse for the presidential party than 1994 was."
It's unanimous. The GOP will pick up 4-6 seats, but a majority in the Senate will wait until 2012.

Unless it doesn't. In which case - it happens like this:

The Republicans hold all their existing seats, and out of the following 11 races the Republicans must win 9:

North Dakota

New York

9 of 11 will split the the Senate evenly at 50-50. That leaves Joe Biden as the tie-breaker and we remain under One Party Democratic Rule. Until and unless... Joe Lieberman decides to end his destructive, co-dependent and abusive relationship with the Democratic Party. Can't you just see it? Joe at the nexus of power, deciding to leave his mark in history as the ultimate Independent, caucusing with the Republicans, giving them the majority in the Senate, and forcing bi-partisanship. Joe just might see it that way.

Ten in Ten. Call it the Scott Brown Effect. You know you want it.

UPDATED 31-August-10: 2010 Senate Race prediction updated in a new post - Ten in Ten.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.