GOP risks going ‘all in’

Although Republicans and Democrats blinked last week to avoid a government shutdown, any real budgetary compromise looks increasingly unlikely.

For some time it has been clear that both sides have gone “all in” and are prepared to risk everything on their reading of the public’s attitude toward the existential seriousness of the fiscal crisis in which we find ourselves.

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In poker, a player goes “all in” by pushing all his or her chips to the center of the table, denoting a willingness to risk everything on the cards that have been dealt. When the game is down to two players and each goes “all in,” the final result will be one big winner and a loser who will no longer be able to compete. It is not a moment for the cautious.

Poker differs in one very serious way from the “game” Washington Republicans and Democrats are engaged in these days. Poker players bet on the value of the cards in their hand, the objective odds that their opponent might have a better hand, and their sense of whether their opponent has better cards or is bluffing. As Pelosi and Reid face off against Boehner and McConnell, the calculus is a bit different, as the value of the cards is determined by the collective perceptions of the voters at large.

Democrats believe they have history on their side. In the past, Republican budget cutters have run aground as Democrats proclaim that the cuts or decrease in the rate of increase Republicans would pare from the federal budget would hurt the young, the old and the infirm. The need for budgetary restraint often vanished as voters contemplated their impact on education, medical care or retirement programs.

This strategy has worked for decades. When I ran for a state legislative office back in the ’60s, the voters whose support I sought were deluged with mail and phone calls charging that if they elected me, I would “destroy their Social Security.” Hundreds of other Republican candidates at all levels faced similar campaigns, and while it didn’t always work, it worked often enough to become a part of the Democratic response to any proposal to cut public spending.

The fear of this sort of response has restrained many Republicans, who believe spending should be reduced, from actually fighting for real cuts. The belief that such a strategy might well work again has led respected political analysts like Charlie Cook to suggest that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal could be a GOP “suicide pact.”

Republicans have recently come to believe, however, that what worked yesterday might not work today, because the world and voter attitudes have changed. They believe that voters share their belief that the nation is on the verge of going over a fiscal cliff, that current spending levels are unsustainable and that unless we change course now, the nation we pass on to our children and grandchildren will be a lesser nation than that we inherited from those who came before. They see the emergence of the “Tea Party,” poll numbers indicating that the public shares this concern, the success of Chris Christie in New Jersey and many other signs as evidence.

The problem is that deficit spending has been going on for so long that it’s difficult for most politicians to take these warnings seriously or to believe that at the end of the day, voters will act differently. Regardless of how they feel about the objective crisis, Democrats will try to repeat their past success by belittling those who are worried and appeal instead to the interests of constituencies they believe will ultimately put their individual interests above some nebulous national interest.

We’ll only know which players guessed right in 2012. If the Republicans’ reading of the public proves correct, they can expect even greater gains in both houses of Congress and should pick up the White House.

If they’re wrong … well, that’s the downside of going “all in.”

David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, serves as first vice president of the National Rifle Association, and maintains an “of counsel” relationship with The Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental affairs firm.