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Friday, April 01, 2011

The budget battle as a no-limits poker tournament

I may draw, with this post, the sort of vehement disagreement and even scorn that Mitch Daniels triggered with his talk of a truce on so-called "social issues."

My temptation is to anticipate that by at least re-capping my conservative credentials and service as a blogger in the cause of sanity since 2003. I'm going to mostly resist that, but I'm going to hold any comments pretty tightly to the actual topic here, which is this:

I'd like to see NPR and PBS stripped of federal funds. Planned Parenthood, too. In fact, I have a shockingly long list of federal programs that I'd like to see de-funded — many of them primarily because they ought to be designed, supervised, and funded, if at all, at a state or local level. And after reading my list you'd be tempted to nominate me as the biggest Grinch of the 21st Century. But:

Right now the Dems are desperate to change the subject before the 2012 elections, away from total spending, and onto specific programs that offer the best emotional hooks for use in their next campaign. The Dems are committed to — and as Sen. Schumer's timely accidental admission against interest shows, expressly hoping for — a federal government shut-down that they can demagogue Republicans with. And they will use these issues to systematically shore back up, and re-invigorate, every single special interest group in the entire Democratic coalition, and they will use the government shut-down to go after independents.

To my constitutional conservative friends and neighbors, I have to point you to the Constitution, to the very structure of our government. From that fundamental structure flow what I believe to be inescapable political facts right now:

  1. We can't effectively undo what Obama/Reid/Pelosi hath wrought without effective voting control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, much less begin to effect the sort of repairs that are needed.

  2. This therefore is a four-year project, not a two-year project. It started on election day in November 2008, when we lost. It will not — can not — conclude on anything other than its constitutionally determined date: The second Tuesday of November in 2012.

  3. Obama can and will veto any package containing those controversial targeted programs. He badly, badly wants to do that, and he will do it, but of course he'd rather do it at the least political price.

  4. So even if a GOP-written bill axing of these programs were to get through the Senate and the House, it won't become law. The only way that legislation shutting down these programs will become law is in January 2013, if we win in November 2012. Otherwise not.

  5. And therefore absolutely no one's pet Democratic program that they're eager to see axed — not even all of them together — can be permitted put seriously at risk the result of that election by insisting upon them now. Instead, we need to fight over those programs only as part of the overall 2012 budget fight, so that at the same time he vetoes the Congressional enactment which includes (at least some of) those cuts, Obama also has to veto the entire budget.

  6. And when he does that, even if the result then is some kind of government shutdown, then it's been for the best — and broadest possible combination — of reasons. That fight, and that veto, makes the budget the #1 issue in November 2012, sweeping the GOP to control of both chambers and the White House.

We are still early in what will become a winner-take-all game of high-stakes poker with only two players. From January 2009 until the Scott Brown special election, we had a very small stack, but we got back in the game, and regained at least a respectable stack of chips in the 2010 election. In a two-player match, though, you can't win until you've got the bigger stack: Until then, if you go all in and win, your opponent will still have chips left. What's important is to wrest away the chip lead over time. And bide your time waiting for a strong hand on which you've gotten good action, when pushing all the chips in and winning means you've won not just that hand, but the tournament.

Barack Obama's and the Dems' explosion of the federal budget is, in poker terms, potentially a monster hand for our team. If that is the main issue in November 2012, we win back the White House, we win 60+ in the Senate, and we deepen our lead in the House. And then starting in January 2013 we sweep the table.

Now, I'm not saying we ought never fight those fights on those wasteful Dem programs that should get the axe. There are indeed constituencies in the GOP or among independents who will swing our way on those same issues, and if we can get them to do that at the same time, that energizes our base. But the time to fight those fights is not now, but as part of serious debate on the overall 2012 budget — we've got the big enchilada on the table.

(I know, it's disgusting to mix food metaphors with poker, and I'm sorry for that.)

Then it's not "those nasty Republicans killed my ____ program that I love, and they didn't even really solve the budget problems, my favorite program got killed as part of the 'token' cuts so I will go to the polls and hate you evil Republicans forever," yada yada.

Budget misery, like other kinds of misery, absolutely loves company. We present all our cuts as part of the 2012 budget in a comprehensive package in which everyone — yes, including those noxious programs, too — has to share in a really big haircut (in some cases to the scalp).

(Now I've got hair on the poker table along with the big enchilada — as thoroughly disgusting a mixing of metaphors as has ever appeared on this blog.)

I'm not saying roll over, I'm saying hold as firm as we can on the House bill now in the Senate. But let's don't push in our whole stack prematurely on a "development hand." We cannot win if we do not stay focused on the big picture, meaning winning in November 2012.  And before we push in all our chips on a bet that would do that for us, we need to have gained the bigger stack.

And by November 2012, we will have taken every cut we can possibly wring out of them now and — and vastly more importantly — we will have the benefit of a further steady drumbeat on the much bigger drum of the 2012 budget.


We're still going to lose that fight on the 2012 budget, folks. We cannot win that fight while Barack Obama is in the White House. This is a four-year project.

Once again — because of Constitutional impediments — we cannot win the whole tournament unless and until we win that election. That election becomes the last hand. That's where we go all in. Everything we do now must be with a view toward positioning for that hand.

We must not be foolish by being short-sighted, not even with the best of intentions. We must maintain discipline — and as with any discipline, this will be unpleasant to tolerate in the short term.

If you don't grok poker, then we can talk about sprints and marathons, or keep going until we find a metaphor that makes it vivid to you.

If you think I'm wrong, don't waste your breath reciting how bad the problems are, or even how dissatisfied you are with the lack of big progress so far. Nothing you say is going to change the structural features of this problem, because they tie directly into constitutional anchor principles. Saying I'm not being a "true conservative" will get you put in commenter time-out. Tell me why instead a symbolic, vetoed interim bill now cutting off funding to any single Dem pet program, or even any combination of them, is worth the risks of dividing our focus and firepower and wasting it prematurely. Convince me it's worth the risk of four more years of Mr. Obama and his Magic Unicorn.

Posted by Beldar at 07:39 PM in 2012 Election, Budget/economics, Congress, Current Affairs, Obama, Politics (2011) | Permalink


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(1) Dafydd the Analogy Obsessed made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 3:45:23 AM | Permalink


So in one fell bloost, I discover that you are a fan of (a) analogies, (b) the World Poker Tour, (3) Seinfeld, (iv) the writings of Robert Anson Heinlein (at least one of them), and (cinco) Mexican food.

Seriously, I love the analogy of a political battle to a No-Limit Texas Hold'Em tournament, though I'm not sure we're actually down to "heads-up" play yet; several other players still seem to have "chips and a chair" -- e.g., Tea Partiers, split-the-difference Independents, bitter-ender socialists, and suchlike.

But you might want to post an update in which you explain some of the poker terms you flung so entertainingly and enlighteningly. Many readers may not know what going "all in" means; why you can "double up" but still not win the tournament; what a "developing" or "drawing" hand is, and why it's perilous to go all-in on one; and other specialized terms.

Heck, they may not even have an opinion on whether Mike Sexton looks more authoritative with the glasses or contacts, and why Vince Van Patton increasingly resembles the Marlboro Man teleported to a Playboy party.

Continuing your analogy, we desperately need to do a better job of getting inside our opponents' heads. At the moment, Democrats still do a much better job of "reading us," and can seemingly put us "on tilt" at will.

I've long thought that Republicans do a much better job of governing, but Democrats are lightyears ahead of us in campaigning. When it becomes routine for us not only to govern like Reagan but campaign like he did as well... well, that will be the end of the Democratic Party, at least as it has existed for the past few decades: When the American people are finally able to see the high-frequency "tells" emitted by the Left, the brazen "bluffs" run by Reid, Pelosi, and Obama will be "called down" every time.


(2) PHILIP GAHTAN made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 6:08:47 AM | Permalink

If the House of Representatives doesn't fund these programs, they don't exist. We have to defund Obama Care now.

[Edited to change from all caps. Please don't shout. — Beldar]

(3) stan made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 8:11:51 AM | Permalink

If the GOP had any brains, they'd simply propose that govt spending be limited to no more than the trend before the spending orgy of the last few years. Simply stress -- we were going further and further in debt even then, surely we should be able to go back to that level of irresponsibility.

Federal spending in 2007: 2.73 trillion

Simply offer to add 25% more to the spending of 2007. That's about 3.4 trillion. Obama is asking for over 3.8.

Simple message -- the American family sure isn't spending 25% more than they did 3 or 4 years ago. Surely the bloated Federal govt can get by with "only" a 25% increase.

Cut Obama's request by 10% and allocate the money in the same numbers as 2007 with a 25% increase for every budget.

If a politician can't sell this concept, he's too stupid to be a leader.

(4) Leon Dixon made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 1:18:29 PM | Permalink

Mitch's Legislative accomplishments, even on the social issues he claims to avoid, are huge. In the trimming of un needed government he has done more than any other current leader anywhere and, he has just begun. What he has accomplished in Indiana is the prototype of what needs to occur in Washington and it will, one way or another. It can be fixed in time and in some pain or the jury rigged house of cards can come tumbling down with only pain to show for it.
He has now about a 60-40 House, largely because of his own efforts at electing like minded folks. In a month or two, when the Legislature goes home, he will have a list of Legislative accomplishments longer than your arm-and they are real and tough issues, including government schools and improving them to the extent that might be possible given our current knowledge.
So, he doesn't talk much about social issues? The challenge for those who do mouth off so much would be to match the long list of his accomplishments in that area. As they say up here in Indiana, "It ain't braggin ifn you can do it".

(5) DRJ made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 2:00:18 PM | Permalink

I agree wholeheartedly. One of the problems with conservative voters is that we have lives and want to get back to them after elections, confident that our elected officials will carry out our wishes. But liberals (and lobbyists) know it can be even more effective to pressure elected officials after the elections are over. What's happening in Wisconsin is a perfect example of why it isn't enough to mobilize every 2-4 years. Instead, like the Greatest Generation before us, we have to work 365/24/7 to make sure our children inherit a strong America.

(6) Leon Dixon made the following comment | Apr 2, 2011 3:16:38 PM | Permalink

I am glad that Beldar is back posting regularly because he provides his views "with the bark off". In similar fashion while Mitch is a political person he is also his own person and blowing his own horn is not something he does well. He is well known in Indiana but not so much elsewhere. I can vouch for the link that he is pretty much what you see and hear. But, only folks with 42 minutes to burn or a curiosity should bother with viewing it as the bark is off: http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2011/04/028742.php

(7) Rich Rostrom made the following comment | Apr 3, 2011 12:11:21 AM | Permalink

Very interesting analogy.

However, one warning to remember. A lot of these tournaments are resolved not by skill, but by luck.

Player A gets a high pair and goes all in - and player B gets a higher pair.

I remember one WPT final table (it was in Aruba, and the table was outdoors, very unusual). On the first hand, the player with the short stack caught pocket aces. He went all in before the flop - and was busted.

S--- happens (or "There is occurrence of feculent material", as the Scientologists would say.)

(8) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Apr 3, 2011 1:44:03 AM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: It's a sign of how enfeebled conservatism has become that you think your prescription is "Grinchian" when it is quite mild. A scapel, not a chainsaw. I think this caution enfeebles action when what is needed is audacity, audacity, and more audacity. So I disagree with you.

The poker metaphor is bad. Poker is a game of chance and skill with well defined rules. Politics is orders of magnitude more complicated. To be sure, some of the skills of poker playing are relevant to the present situation. But the notion that the present situation can be reduced to as well defined an event as a poker tournament is silly. What, to follow your example, would a poker tournament's equivalent of the election of Scott Brown be? That was a game changer in a way that no poker rule could have foreseen.

I dislike your prescription because it makes the best the enemy of the good. Implicit in your analysis is the notion that economically, we can muddle along for a few more years. You might be right. But I don't think so. This nation's capacity for carrying debt is being tested as never before. The disaster in Japan is going to cause trouble down the road, when Japan needs to rebuild---and can't buy our debt because they have to sell some of their own foreign exchange to pay for it. The debt crisis in Europe is horrifying. Let an unexpected meltdown occur and what happens? Another TARP (which incidentally, is a fine response to Dafydd's dismaying notion that the GOP necessarily does a better job of governing than the Dems.)? What will The One's impulse be? The same as Geo. W's: make the bloody govt bigger. Best to resist him now. Get behind Paul Ryan's road map (after doubling it) an press it hard. The notion that a government shutdown would discredit the GOP is wrong. That danger exists, and is real, especially given the liberal bigots in the press. But caution is just as bad. You see The One as benefiting from events in the manner of Billyboy, ca. 1995-96. I think the better example is GHW Bush, ca. 1991-92. The One had his triumph with Obamacare. As with GHW, the economy is poor. It is feebly stirring now, but there's many dangers of another slump. The housing market shows signs of a double dip. Gary Shilling thinks a 20% drop in house prices is likely. If he's right, where's any economic recovery?

But above all, waiting imperils this nation's democracy. Keith Hennessey rightly points out that the deficit is an incomplete metric. It is the amount of GDP being taken by the feds that should concern us. The One has no problem with growing government. The devil take tomorrow: he's got his, and to hell with the bitter clingers. He'll show them!

"Timing" has another problem. I always hoped that the GOP would take the Senate instead of the House in 2010. The Senate can block The One's appointments. Taking the "Timing" course as you suggest is placing a big bet that the 75 year old Antonin Scalia will be able to hold on at the Court. Let him kick the bucket, and the whole legal battle changes. The One doesn't even need to get a bigot like Sotomayor on the bench. A squish in the manner of Kennedy will do. Multiply this by thousands of judges and independent agencies and hundreds of liars in the Ivy League law schools for whom government can never be too big, and you've got a ferocious problem. This would be a politcal catastrophe comparble to Japan's earthquake.

Nope. Get going, I say. Unleash the Grinches and swing the ax. There's a risk that the nation will flinch, and The One will get his way until the real smashup comes. But I think it's better to take that risk. In 1933, there was a Briish by election in the Fulham East constituency. The Conservative candidate lost, on what was widely interpreted as an anti-rearmament issue. The Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, so interpreted it, and kept dragging his feet on disarmament until 1937, when he handed over to Neville Chamberlain, who was even worse. All during those years Churchill argued for rearmament. His own mistakes hurt his case, but what really stopped disarmament was that it was seen as risky so far as general elections were concerned. Later, as the dangers of pacifism became clearer, rearmament was seen as provacative. I think this situation is a better analogy to today's economic troubles. Cutting spending will always be opposed by such liars as Paul Krugman who never saw a Democratic deficit he didn't worship.

My course of action has great risks too, as you've pointed out. But I think following my course would inspirit those in this nation that want to resist this expansion of government, and the entrenchment of liberal bigotry as the ruling principle. There will never be a "safe" time to introduce cuts. But as Reagan said: If not us, who? If not now, when?

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(9) EricPWJohnson made the following comment | Apr 3, 2011 6:33:05 AM | Permalink


Greetings, I would like to see an across the board 5% cut get debated, everything 5% off.

Why not?

(10) Joseph Somsel made the following comment | Apr 4, 2011 1:48:44 PM | Permalink

Some of these "pet" cuts are crowd-pleasers and are useful in keeping the broader budget issues up front for the voters, especially independent voters that we'll need in 2012.

Beldar's broader point is true - we haven't won until we either win both houses of Congress AND the White House OR until our opponent capitulates and agrees that necessary cuts must be made.

In our politics, one would expect the Democrats to take the latter course to cut their loses. But, it is up to them - go all in and be defeated at the polls or compromise to save the country and more of their seats.

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