Saturday, March 20, 2010

Of Bluffing

This is Nate Silver on the 'bluff' made by Congressional progressives on health care:

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.
Not all bluffs are equal. Negotiations may feature bluffs that are completely disingenuous from the start -- raising the bids even when holding a pair of off-color three's -- versus bluffs that are only exposed as such after the final deal has been made, when a bettor reviews all the stakes, considers all the cards in sight, and concludes the best move is to take a modest loss rather than a complete washout.

Bluffs have their place in negotiation. When progressives pledged to vote against any health care reform bill that lacked a public option, they telegraphed not their insincerity but how one aggressively bargains for a public option. This is what bargaining looks like. In any high-stakes, consequential negotiation, there can be expected to be histrionic threats, dramatic feints, and wild lunges -- and after all the cards are laid down, the revelation that there had been, all along, a degree of overstatement.

When critics like Glenn Greenwald say progressives need to be tougher (as cited above), this is, I think, part of what he means. The progressive bloc of Congress has, I will charitably suppose, learned that the ugly gamesmanship that goes along with negotiating is part of the duty of a public servant. They don't need to relish it; certainly they shouldn't make it their focus or mistake it for more direct, straightforward, pursuits; but they need it. This won't be the last time.

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