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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Progressives and Poker

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on March 19, 2010.
There’s been some interesting talk going on this week involving assessment (in the wake of the collapse of progressive resistance to the final health reform bill) of “the Left’s” strategy on health reform, particularly in terms of the ultimate emptiness of threats from progressive House Democrats that they would vote against any bill that didn’t include a “robust” public option.
Glenn Greenwald argues that progressives have once again exposed–and possibly even increased–their “powerlessness” within the Democratic Party. Chris Bowers challenges the premise by arguing that progressives did secure significant changes in the Senate bill, most notably the agreement to “fix” it, which certainly wasn’t the path of least resistance.
Meanwhile, Armando of Talk Left has compared the lack of leverage of progressives over items like the public option to the success of the labor movement in forcing concessions on the “Cadillac tax.” And Nate Silver has responded by arguing that progressive threats didn’t work because they weren’t credible in the first place.
I think everyone in this debate would agree that it’s generally a bad idea in politics to make threats you are entirely unwilling to carry out, but the real division of opinion on on whether such threats should be tempered or in fact intensified. But Nate makes one point that bears repeating: the political value of aggressiveness and posturing can and often does get exaggerated.

It feels good to assert that progressives just need to be tougher — perhaps even to the point of feigning irrationality. These arguments are not necessarily wrong — a reputation for being tougher bargainers would help at the margins — but it misdiagnoses the problem on health care. The progressive bloc failed not because of any reputational deficiency on the part of the progressives but because their bluff was too transparent — they claimed to be willing to wager enormous stakes (health care reform) to win a relatively small pot (the public option). That would have been beyond the capacity of any poker player — or activist — to pull off.

I’ve never much liked the strain of progressive analysis that endlessly promotes “fighting” and “spine” and “cojones” as the answers to every Democratic political problem. Sometimes “brains” or “heart” are more important, and moreover, if politics is reduced to a willingness to project brute force, the bad guys are going to win every time; it’s like getting into a selfishness competition with the Right–we’ll never win. But in any event, however you feel about the Will to Power theory of politics, Nate’s right, people aren’t all stupid, and macho posturing by progressives when it doesn’t make sense isn’t going to convince anybody. Poker playing is a relatively small and overrated part of politics. Real conviction and strategies based on conveying those convictions to friends and potential friends are the best building blocks for successful strategy.

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