Over the years, I’ve read many discussions of the relation of poker to legislative politics. While recently it’s been more popular to compare it to chess, poker still has a lot of analogies that fit. I’ve been watching the recent equivocating, or just petulant whining of the liberal groups that were the most strident in calling for the healthcare reform bill to be killed. What strikes me about the change in tone is not so much that they’ve been persuaded by the arguments in favor of the bill, but that they’ve realized their bluff has been called. They went “all in” with nothing in their hand, and now they’re facing the prospect of being out of the game.
This wasn’t unexpected. It’s something that a number of people, myself included, tried to warn them about. I even asked them, point blank, what their plan was if the current legislation failed. The answer? Crickets. Honestly, I’d love to get these people into a poker game. I love suckers like that. I’ve played enough poker in my life to have learned a few things. The first thing is that if you’re going to bluff, you set up the opportunity. You never bluff right off the bat. If you’re bluffing, you play it just like you’ve played your winning hands in the past. That means you have to have had winning hands. You study the other players, to see if they’ve got any “tells.” Are they cautious, risk takers, or impatient? It’s a series of hands you have to play, not just one. Sometimes luck goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why you set up the chance to bluff. When the time is right, that’s when you do it – but not before. If you’ve bluffed before you’re ready, you’re going to get cleaned out.
That’s just what happened to them. They went in thinking they had real power. They thought they had a “winning hand” with their ideal plan. They even thought they had the ability to make politicians worry about them. Their kibitzers kept screaming at them to “up the ante!” The problem? They didn’t have real power. They mistook the election results as a result of their actions, not as a result of a wide range of factors. They had never before demonstrated in local, state, or national elections a capability to get their candidates elected, and be a major campaign force. Even worse, when they tried to play the game, it turned out they didn’t know the rules of the game they were playing.
They bluffed – and the problem was that they were in a game where everyone else in the game knew they were bluffing. They went all in, and now it looks like they’re going to be cleaned out. The sad part is how many people believed them when they said they could win. How many gave them money to throw in the pot. The ones who are still screaming about having a chance. The bluff didn’t work, and they should fold while they still have something left.