I love watching the poker tour on cable television. You can tell the great poker players from the lousy ones pretty quickly. The great poker players don’t overplay their hands when they get good cards.

The Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate are lousy poker players.  They had a pretty good hand when it came to the Iraq debate. They have public opinion polls on their side. They had an opportunity to build a bipartisan coalition with GOP Sens. Richard Lugar (Ind.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Pete Domenici (N.M.) to force the president to change strategy. But instead of slow-playing this good hand, they forced the action and looked like fools. 

Things started going badly for the Democrats when they let the House take the lead last week. House Democrats are most responsive to the loony left of their party, and by forcing through a timetable for withdrawal last week, they started the debate on a partisan note. It was so partisan, 10 of the most vulnerable Democrats abandoned their party and joined with Republicans in voting against the resolution. Any grown-up discussion was going to be hard to achieve after that start.

And it got worse this week when Senate Democrats threw a pajama party to protest the war. Pulling an all-nighter to finish a flurry of legislation before leaving for a recess is a time-honored congressional tradition. Pulling an all-nighter in the middle of the week with the goal of achieving nothing more than robbing the sleep of old senators and young staff is a cheap stunt. It reflected poorly on the Senate and the Democrats who now run it. That it was dubbed a pajama party by the media shows how little credit the majority party garnered for their efforts.

This is an important debate and it requires grown-up discussion. Partisan bickering and political stunts have backfired and will continue to backfire on the Democrats who are trying their hardest to please their ravenous base. But pleasing their base doesn’t get them far enough. They need to appeal to the rest of the country.

Seeking middle ground is hard for congressional leaders because they risk losing their strongest supporters. But congressional ratings will stay mired at the bottom without consensus and bipartisan accord. The Democratic leaders in both bodies seem incapable of even dreaming about compromise, let alone reaching out for it. They are playing to their base time after time, solidifying their reputations as partisans.

That strategy may win them a small pot every once in a while, but it won’t work in the long term.