What Did We Win (other than our government back)?


Whether it’s 11th dimensional chess, poker, or even chicken, political chatterers like myself often commit to narrative what Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed the “Ludic Fallacy”. It is summarized as “the misuse of games to model real-life situations.” I am going to indulge in this fallacy too after a fashion, because I think the best metaphor to employ in “gaming” the Congressional brinksmanship of the shutdown and the debt ceiling (being a reprise of similar activities during the Obama years, with future rounds yet to come) is the simple game of pushing hands. Based on this model, I believe neither side has lost, and thus both sides are actually winning.

Now, there is a Tai Chi practice known as pushing hands which emphasizes connectedness, self-awareness, and balance. This game is like that, but cruder (and lacking the necessary spiritual component). This is the game for when you basically want a PG-rated framework in which to knock over a little sibling — or, as a little sibling to actually have a decent chance of knocking over your bigger, elder sibling in a struggle made fair through cunning.

Whether you are roughousing a sibling, or doing cooperative Tai Chi practice, the game works this way: you assume a stance you intend to hold, a certain distance from your opponent who does the same, facing each other, holding your hands up, palms out, starting near shoulder height but close to you, so your elbows are crooked. Your hands and arms interact with your opponent’s, applying force and resistance where needed, delivering and accepting pushes. The goal is to move your opponent off of his or her stance. If you do it with gusto to a sibling, you can even tip them over.

At first blush, it is a game of strength, reflexes, and timing. You see all the flurry of activity, and you look at the obvious “Tale of the Tape” features like who is bigger, who stronger, who faster. Once you become adept at this game, you realize that while the arms and hands are the tactical interface, there is a strategy. There are numerous sorties, but good players will survive many flurries of activity. The game is about remaining rooted to the ground by maintaining your balance. You can nullify your bigger, stronger, faster opponent simply by getting him or her to participate in the act of moving their center of gravity at odds with their feet. The Tai Chi practice of pushing hands teaches the student centeredness, the goal being to develop and strengthen control over one’s own balance. Pushing hands is a relatively non-violent game that is nonetheless about physical control: self-control and the direct bodily control of your opponent. You even get to knock them over if you roll a hard six.

Returning to politics now… At the end of the day, whether we’re talking about relatively cut and dry bean-counting and vote-whipping, cloak & dagger procedural battles, culture warring, media sparring and cable news shouting, or even shutdown and default threats, (not to mention Charles Sumner-style beatings delivered on the chamber floor), we are basically just assessing the decision about how much force (and how much resistance) is being brought to a grapple. And as we review the President in his responses, going back years now, there’s something pretty interesting that you find about our center of gravity.

Obama made the Bush tax cuts permanent, Obama permitted implementation of Sequestration funding, and all rhetoric aside, Obama has (perhaps to a fault) been aggressive as hell about legitimating Congress as a participant in the debate. In essence, despite repeated electoral whippings, the center of gravity on generating government revenue has not been changed, except by the most fringey wing of the GOP. As with the Bush(now Obama) tax cuts, the President was forced to eat Sequestration spending today, merely to have a government at all. In exchange for having a government, Obama’s push for healthcare reform has been accepted. For now.

The 3AM Phone Call to Obama in fact turned out to be over a threat from Congress. He took the call and restarted the government. The unpopularity of these tactics may not matter in a year’s time. The only people likely to scare/challenge the Moderate Scared Caucus in the Republican ranks are the fanatics, not the Democrats. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have voted scared for a shutdown. And the dissonance between voters’ generic loathing for congress and specific affection for each’s own representative may or may not prove to be broken now. My view is that we are watching all the pushing going on, which may serve to distract from where the center of gravity in policy (if not polling) really is.

So let’s see whether, despite the putative death of the national GOP, Obama and Democratic leadership manage to get any of the revenue growth that they want and that we need if we are going to elevate progressive values in government. Even with a likely-if-held-today wave election and a Democratic Speaker of the House, the GOP will be as dug in as ever. And the whip-count arithmetic may not be that rosy. So let’s see if Sequestration, which Republican senators are desperate to protect, can actually be ended on future budgets now. Or, with that deal, is that the Obama Sequestration now too? Obama has accepted, among the flurry of Republican pushes, self-imposed Austerity. The Republican is smaller, weaker, and faster, and does not have to invest its weight in each of these grapples, it just has to bear down constantly, and never be entirely knocked over backwards. So far, Republicans have given up nary an inch on revenue, and all of our energy has gone to protecting one landmark initiative, at the expense of many things.

So you can expect the GOP really will run on starving the beast, fighting Leviathan, and stopping Obama in his socialist tracks if they have to. It may not sell like it used to, but to be frank, most of their members are electorally safe, and the President does not have the same coattails either.

What Democrats won was the likelihood that Republicans will return to the grapple smaller and weaker. What Republicans are still winning remains the center of gravity in the real fight over revenue. We have extracted barely a drop. I declare victory when that changes.