I got a message this week I can't respond to. For all of my internal conflict over the decision to respond or not to, I know the right thing to do. But, in another life, with a different past, I know what I would say. And so, what I cannot say elsewhere I will say here.
Dear Mr. President,
On the day after election day, I started to hear a phrase tossed around to explain the disappointment with your Presidency and the Democrats' abysmal midterm performance. "Playing the cards they were dealt", the refrain insisted, indicating that a bad economy, high unemployment, or any number of political cards were the reason Democrats lost. As a poker player this metaphor rang falsely from the moment I heard it.
Because any card player worth their weight knows you don't play the cards you're dealt; you play the man across the table.
When Democrats lost this election it didn't feel, to me, like a problem with our cards versus theirs. Our positions, our issues, our records were better. We just got outplayed. Now, hearing, already, about compromises on the Bush tax cuts feel like the same tired tactics that have failed all legislative session long. Republicans are excellent poker players. They indicate a willingness to compromise, Democrats foolishly believe them and make concessions (and often lose the support of their base in the process,) and Republicans hold the line until they get what they want or no one gets anything at all. You'll push the definition of middle class to $500k a year or $1 million a year, and Republicans will ask for more. In the end, if you're very, very lucky, you'll get tax cuts renewed only on those making less than $5 million a year, but in all likelihood, they will be completely renewed.
Out-playing the Republicans now that they control the House means ignoring the cards we've been dealt. Ask for a bill renewing the tax cuts only for those making $250k or less or threaten to let them all expire. And veto anything in the middle. Raise or fold. Do not check. Do not call. Raise or fold. Forget about the polls, the media narrative, the conventional wisdom, and whatever other cards you think you've been dealt. Look at the man across the table. The question is not "is his hand stronger?" The question is always "can I convince him that his hand is weaker?"
Maybe gambling is not the most noble profession. And you might make the argument that governing is not a game, that people's lives and livelihoods are at stake. Ask any poker player going all-in with this week's grocery money- higher stakes require you to play well, not to play cautiously. The stakes are high. Forget the cards you were dealt and your moral objections to the way the game is played. Look at the (in this case, very orange) man across the table.
Mr. President, I think that your noble belief in bipartisanship is admirable. But I think it has to be on your terms. I also suspect you're a much better politician than you're willing to let on. You're facing two years of bleeding political capitol every round you lose until election day, or going all-in right now with these tax cuts.
The lesson here is that no one can control the cards they're dealt. Poker is, superficially, a game of luck. The reason that some people win the world series and others lose their lunch money is that good players learn to leverage what they can control; their own reactions, perceptions, confrontation. Good players know the cards change but the man across the table stays the same.