Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The "All-In" Mentality

I'm not much of a poker player. For a few years, I played in a friendly local game, low stakes: the most anyone could lose in an evening was $10, and if that happened, you got to play for free until you won a hand. The games were often high-low, which encouraged you to play out your hand, no matter how bad it might initially seem.

On a couple of occasions, I've also played some Texas Hold 'Em. It's a different kind of game. Often, the smartest move is to fold right away and hope for a better deal on the next hand. Alternatively, you might want to go "all-in," and bet everything you have.

Now, I was never a good Texas Hold 'Em player, so I might get this wrong, but it seemed to me there were basically three reasons you might go all-in: 1) your read of the cards tells you there is a really low probability that anyone else has a better hand; 2) your read of the players is that they can easily be bluffed into folding, even if they have better hands than you do; or 3) you are desperate, and figure you've got nothing to lose.

On the day when Jon Huntsman folded his campaign, the "all-in" mentality came to mind. Huntsman, in my reading, was not an all-in kind of candidate (though I suppose one could characterize his singular focus on New Hampshire that way). When Mitt Romney reduced the America's China policy to a simple matter of getting tough in the last New Hampshire debate, for example, Huntsman answered with a more nuanced approach, citing the complexities of the US-China relationship, and said (in Mandarin!) that Romney simply didn't know what he was talking about.

These Republican primaries are no place for that kind of candidate. It's a year for going all-in.

Take Rick Perry's ridiculous comments recently about the disgraceful video of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Perry condemned the Obama administration for "over-the-top rhetoric ... and their disdain for the military." Note the mindset Perry betrays with that remark. For him, criticizing the actions of any servicemen for even a reprehensible act shows "disdain for the military." (He repeated those comments at last night's Republican debate, in which he also said that desecration of American corpses is "despicable" while desecration of Afghan corpses is a "mistake.")

Compare that with the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey: “Actions like those are not only illegal but are contrary to the values of a professional military and serve to erode the reputation of our joint force,” Dempsey said

Perry is either too stupid or too blinded by his all-in mindset to understand that criticism of such egregious acts, even calling them illegal, does not show disdain for the military. On the contrary, it is Perry who is truly showing disdain for the military by downplaying the incident, and suggesting that it is not unusual. He tried to minimize the incident, saying "there’s a picture of General Patton doing basically the same thing in the Rhine River." Perry evidently doesn't know the difference between a river and a human corpse.

This is what the current tribal politics of the Republican Party produces in dim bulbs like Perry: an absurd reflex to condemn any criticism of the "core values." If the military is good, no criticism can be broached; all criticism signals "disdain."

Others are just as guilty. Take Romney's repeated assertion that every question about the business practices of Bain Capital constitutes "putting free markets on trial." Effectively, he is saying there are no legitimate questions, and asking one makes you an enemy of capitalism. He evinced the same attitude when asked if any questions about income inequality in America were legitimate, and he dismissed them all as "envy." At last night's debate, Romney said he would not negotiate with the Taliban, because you never negotiate with people who are trying to kill you. "Unconditional surrender" was US policy in World War II, but by that standard, most of the other wars in human history would never have ended.

All of these are conversation enders, and are meant to be. There is no interest in actual debate, a real give-and-take that might illuminate and enlighten. There is no desire to learn or deepen understanding (one's own or anyone else's). The discourse has all become about who can seem to be the most vociferous defender of the faith, and the most zealous persecutor of the heretics. (On that score, Gingrich was at his demagogic best in last night's debate.)

That's why I continue to believe that Gingrich's attempt to challenge Romney's business record, and Ron Paul's persistent questioning of the rest of the field's foreign policy myopia (particularly on Iran) are both valuable. Primaries should not be about unthinkingly reaffirming dogma, but unfortunately that's what this "all-in" campaign has been about, far more often than not.

So what does this "all-in" mentality tell us about this year's GOP field? It's possible that the candidates really, truly believe that they hold the best hand: that Obama is so unpopular, and that their core values are so in tune with the electorate, that they don't really need to examine them.

If they think that Obama can be bluffed into folding, well, they have not been paying attention for the last four years.

But I suspect the real reason is, in fact, desperation. The dogma being defended is indeed passionately held by the Republican base. That base, however, is shrinking. With the evidence and consequences of income inequality growing daily, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by promising to cut the taxes of the wealthiest yet again. With the war in Afghanistan now in its eleventh year, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by promising ever-continuing war. With America growing ever more diverse, it is getting harder and harder to win national elections by pandering to racial and ethnic resentments.

There were two candidates, I think, who understood all that. One dropped out yesterday, and the other is routinely ridiculed as having no chance of getting the nomination because of his views.

Today's GOP is going all-in. Deep down, I think they know they're holding a losing hand.


  1. I agree with everything you say in your well informed and well written piece. One can only hope the national economy will continue to improve bit by bit and that enough young voters who supported Prez Obama in 2008 will do so again in November. Otherwise, there is every
    possibility that Romney (the most likely Republican candidate and the least offensive of the bunch) will win the White House and have a majority in both the House and Senate to work wih. And that would be tragic indeed.

  2. You're right that the best bet for Obama's reelection is a steadily improving economy, but I'm increasingly thinking that Romney's record and words might help Obama even if the economy doesn't improve much.

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