Let's play a game. I step into a room with all of you, 52 of my favorite game-playing friends. I crack open a deck of cards, toss out the jokers and deal out one card to each of you. Go ahead and spend a moment to imagine a card for yourself, that way you can have a stake in this even if it's only in your mind.
Got one? Ok. Let's also pretend for a moment I'm rich. I offer a reward to all of you playing -- for each red-black pair of cards you hand to me, I'll give you $100. The suits don't matter, nor do the face-values of the cards, any two cards where one is red and one is black bags you a C-note. All of you are looking at an opportunity to make a few bucks with no risk. I open my wallet and stand at the front of the room waiting for you all to work it out amongst yourselves.
Odds are most of you will hold up your card and look around for someone to match up with. And as you all find someone it's likely most of you will come to a mutually-beneficial solution that doesn't require a lot of work to agree on -- "$50 apiece?" A simple split, everyone walks out with a solid result in their hip pocket, and since all of you have an equal amount of power in the game it's a pretty solid assessment of what you should expect to earn. Twenty-six pairs, get in line to cash out.
But, there's trouble. As all of you pair up and proceed to the front of the room to collect, something unexpected happens. I've spiked the deck. There's a few more black cards than there are red, and as the number of unmatched pairs dwindles it becomes apparent that someone is going to not have a $100 dance partner.
Now, before you continue reading, consider what happens from two perspectives. First consider what happens from that of a spectator with no stake in the game. What do you see? Where are people standing? Who's talking to who? Now consider what happens from your own perspective. You picked a card earlier -- which side of the split are you on? If you have a red card you suddenly appear to be in a more powerful position. Maybe you should ask for more than $50. You're certainly going home with something and at this point it's a matter of seeing how good a deal you can strike. But if your card is black, you find yourself at risk -- someone is going home with nothing, and given the choice you'd like it to be one of your black-card brethren, not you. Maybe you should cut a deal now for less than $50, take what you can get, lock in your return. Your position is weak because the card you were dealt was inherently less-valuable.
Since the number of red and black cards is uneven, the each player on the red side is holding something with more intrinsic value, in this case dollars. Since a pair is needed the reds still need to give up something, but if you picked red it should be more than an even split, right?
Don't count it yet. It may not be. In fact you may be happy to settle for $25 when all is said and done. You see, the game is more complicated than it appears on the surface, and for those of us players of heavier, more personality-driven games the range of outcomes appears far broader (and indeed is) than what appears to the non-gaming audience. In situations with variable strengths cooperative relationships inevitably form. Parties that share common goals come together and work together, redefining who's an ally and who's an opponent as the game progresses. In our card example above former competitors -- fellow black-card-holders -- become teammates in an effort to manage red's superior bargaining position. A charismatic player can make this happen in short order. They're a leader, a catalyst that dis-empowers the red-card holders on the other side of the aisle. When both sides begin to transform from opponents into cooperative groups, into parties, the dynamics of the game change with no change in ruleset. Options that weren't viable before appear out of necessity. Should the black-card holders choose they can go home with their cards tucked neatly in their wallets, a souvenir of the session, leaving red empty-handed as well. This poison-pill option gives them the leverage they need to demand better returns from their opponents, striking a deal with all the red-card-holders as a group, or picking them off one by one, all to get a better combined return than would be expected with simple match-ups, maybe even better than $50. Personalities start to make a measurable difference on the outcome of this game. There's no decision tree here; there's no clearly defined set of outcomes to choose from. This is bargaining.
Ok, so that's a primer on politics, neatly wrapped and delivered with a spiked deck of cards. This is business-as-usual in a two-party political system, and it's a pretty common occurrence in the governments of the western world. More fractured political systems work the same way though in much more complicated relationships.
But something pretty remarkable happened this past year in US politics, and not because the rules changed. As in my example above, the amazing part occurred because of the out-of-the-ordinary deal of the cards and how they were played. But perhaps the most astounding part of the entire situation to me is that I have not heard one single person in the "Establishment Press" indicate that they have fully comprehended or (and I don't think this is the case) fully explained what happened. In my opinion, truly magnificent game play by the Republican Party has been completely overlooked by people that are supposed to understand how the game works..
Now, it is with no small amount of concern that I submit an article on politics to a web site that features a fellatio-scope. This is especially risky when the US Senate is involved. But this isn't commentary on the politics -- it's on the game that's played out within, and with any luck we'll have a shot at keeping the bulk of the debate on that part of the scenario.
Let's set the stage for those of you not in the United States. The US Senate does all of us a favor by having exactly 100 members, making math calculations very simple. The number of Senators that vote in a particular way is also the percentage of the whole that voted, so figuring out what a 60% majority is requires no arithmetic at all. And that number, 60, has been very important for the last year, because it represents two things simultaneously -- 1) the number of Senators in the Democratic Coalition, and (this is the big one) 2) the number of votes needed to move any particular bill through the chamber. The Senate requires 60% of it's members to close discussion on a bill before it can be voted on. 60 is the Senate's magic number, and the fact that the number in the majority exactly matches it is extremely important in the game that's been played out over the last year.
I've already mentioned the Democrats' majority of 60 members, but they're not the key players here. The Republicans in the Senate hold the remaining 40 seats. Each a card-carrying member of the Republican party, they vary in outlook from staunch conservative to solidly moderate and as members of the minority party they in theory have little or no power. Their ability to influence "the game" is limited since they do not have enough votes to prevent any piece of legislation from moving. The Democrats (and a few Independents that are working with them) hold the remaining 60 votes, and therefore can bring forward any piece of legislation they choose and pass it on their own, and presumably turn it into law with the blessing of a President that shares their outlook. The Democrats are firmly in control. They own the Senate.
In case this all hasn't been appearing on your nightly news, let me fill you in -- this hasn't been going well for the Democrats. They have been unable to hold themselves together long enough to pass even simple pieces of legislation. You can blame the Democrats for it if you like, but from a game-players perspective credit needs to be given where credit is due -- the Republicans have masterfully manipulated the political game with an upside-down strategy that is genius in both its simplicity and its outcome: they've mailed their votes in in-advance.
The magic number -- 60 -- is the Democrats' kiss of death. They don't have 61 votes; they don't have 59, and that's big. They sit squarely upon the most disadvantagous position a majority can occupy in spite of celebrating in the streets when they achieved it. They have exactly as many votes needed to do anything, and that has resulted in a truly unique situation. Here are the most important sentences in this article coming up right here --> The Republicans, through the simplest of strategic choices, have given every single member of the Democratic Coalition an incredible amount of power. By conciously dis-empowering themselves, the Republicans have turned each member of the Democratic Coalition into a unilateral neutron bomb, one that can only harm democrats.
At some point after the elections of 2008 Republican strategists sat down to figure out what their game plan would be for the coming Congressional session. These aren't the politicians. These guys don't deal in policy. They don't get paid to figure out what tax rates should be or what our relationship with Cuba should look like. These guys deal in the game. They're implementors, not visionaries, and they get paid well for their work. And after a complete drubbing in the election the Republican strategists were in a position where they would have to play defense. But as any grissled gamer knows, defensive positions can have their advantages. In fact limiting your options can put you into a position of power, and sometimes having no options at all is positively strategic. Conditions like Mutually Assured Destruction and Poison Pill limit your opponent's options as much as your own, and if the stalemate that results benefits you . . . well, it may be a solid move to do what it takes to nurture it.
And that's at the heart of what the Senate Republicans did for the last year. Their strategy can be summed up in exactly one word: "No." As a group, Republican Senators have voted no on everything. They've voted no on every Democratic bill. They've voted No on bills that they themselves sponsored. They've even voted No on bills that they've written, with no change in the verbiage. The party's position in Congress (and the party leadership's incentivizing and strong-arming) has resulted in a stainless steel coalition of members that work as a team regardless of personal needs. They have welded themselves together -- something crucial to the very concept of the strategy. No one strays, no one flinches, no one blinks. They have completely relinquished their voices, adding nothing to the debate and declaring in advance that this was their intention.
To the ill-informed it sounds like a temper-tantrum. To the party-faithful it sounds like a brave stand against tyranny. To anyone that plays strategic games on a regular basis, it sounds like just plain genius. By forcing each Senate decision into the 60-60 sweet spot the Republicans have handed every Democratic Senator supreme power, putting them in a position to ask for anything they want, and that's just what a few of them have been doing, brutalizing their party leadership, providing ample ammunition to any and all political opponents, and dealing collateral damage to the US pocketbook in the process.
In short, it's frikkin' genius. Don't get me wrong -- it's paralyzed the government and all, but the guys who figured it out must be laughing their asses off. They've found a position on the game board where they can just sit in safety while their opponent gets slammed turn after turn. This is a dream-case, something gamers live for. As long as their 40 votes are in unison, pre-cast and clearly telegraphed before any discussion even begins on a bill, they have the power to turn each and every one of their opponents into a walking disaster -- a disgruntled superhero on the other side of the aisle willing to extract pounds and pounds of flesh and threatening doom if they don't get it. With 60 members to choose from, there's little need for the minority to persuade or coerce -- that many many egos in the mix means it's inevitable that one will step up to the challenge on any given day.
Had there been 61 Democratic members, good old-fashioned market forces would have started to come into play -- the most expensive Senator (politcally speaking of course) could be set aside for cheaper alternatives, and each member of the coalition would have to temper their demands or risk being the one marginalized and punished. The farther you get from 60 the less value each individual vote carries. Even that one-vote difference would have given party leadership options and leverage, handicapping the Republican strategy. 59 would have changed the mix as well, likely devaluing votes on both sides of the aisle to their respective leaderships and making them more valuable to their opposition's. From a Public Relations perspective 59 would have served the Democrats better as well, since they would have been able to declare obstructionism with some level of credibility. As it stands the Republicans can toss their hands up and say, "The Democrats own the place! They can do what they want!" Truly a dirty trick save for the fact that . . . it's true.
59 just a theory? We'll find out soon enough. A special election has changed the mix now, giving the Republicans another vote at the expense of the Democrats. The numbers now stand at 59-41 and I'd wager that that one single vote will ease some of the pressure on the Democratic Leadership. Incentives will have to favor the center in an attempt to attract now-more-valuable Republican votes, and the Republican strategy of mailing in their votes will truly be obstructionist without caveat. They'll share the blame now, and for GOP Senators in marginal states that will be more difficult to manage. If they manage to maintain their rock-solid "no vote" record they'll likely pay for it in public opinion.
But the game's not over, and I'd wager strategists on both sides of the aisle have already planned contingencies for this change and whatever follows. The Republicans are hoping for a big swing back in the other direction and would certainly welcome a solid majority in November 2010.
But I'll bet you $100 they'd prefer a number other than 60.