Team Biden: World’s worst poker players?

Poker is the ultimate American game, one that features a combination of skill, chance and imperfect information. Its terms — bluffing, raising the stakes, ace-in-the-hole, holding all the cards, etc. — saturate talk about competition. Poker and its academic cousin, game theory, have been used to study how to maximize results in negotiations and conflicts.

You would think that, given our deep knowledge of poker, Americans would excel against the rest of the world in negotiating. But for some unknown reason, American diplomats have been — at best — mediocre players and are getting worse. Instead of Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey, America is stuck with a weak Team Biden. And Team Biden is facing the worst kind of opponent for timid, weak players: the maniac.

In poker, the maniac is always raising, pushing the action — regardless of her cards. But the maniac is not crazy, there is a method to the apparent madness. By being hyper-aggressive, the maniac forces other players to put more at risk than they are comfortable risking. Other players are constantly folding better hands to the maniac. 

Good poker players know how to defeat the maniac: They pick their spots and are not ruled by fear of losing. Good players look for opportunities when they are strong or when the maniac appears to be weak, and they force the maniac to play for all her chips.

Against solid players, the maniac either takes her lumps and calms down or gets busted. But there is a player the maniac always beats: the weak, cowardly player – also known as “the nit.”

The nit never takes a risk. He only plays the best hands for low stakes. The nit passively waits to hit the nuts (unbeatable hand) — a wait that often outlasts his chip stacks. Nits are constantly folding winning hands to aggressive players. Nits live in fear, with solid players and maniacs feasting on their timidity and cowardice. They are the worst poker players. 

And that seems to be the national security team Joe Biden has assembled: a bunch of nits facing off against the maniac Putin. Just like the maniac at the poker table, Putin is not crazy. He is setting the agenda. He recognizes the fear that pervades the Biden national security team.

Consider Putin’s nuclear threat. All he had to do was raise the specter of nuclear war and have a few missile drills and that was enough to send panic through the West and the Biden administration. At essentially no cost, Putin sunk the possibility of a no-fly zone, protective enclaves, and the provision of anything but defensive weapons. Team Biden won’t even let Poland hand over a handful of used jets.

The idea that Putin is seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. or NATO is nonsense. For one thing, there is no evidence that Putin, his security team or, for that matter, the Russian armed forces, are suicidal. Secondly, if a nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO were even to be limited, the “winner” would be China — not exactly the end goal of Putin. For the Russians to escalate to such levels, the threat to Russia would have to be truly existential, which Ukraine is not.

Nuclear saber-rattling would be toxic and absolutely fatal to any American politician, and it would thus be crazy for any American politician to do such a thing. But Putin is not an American politician, and therefore his incentives are very different. He pays no price for his threats but gains enormous profit cowing Team Biden and NATO.

The problem for Putin is that the feckless nits on Team Biden fear one thing more than Putin and nuclear war: bad poll numbers.

For Team Biden, the combination of worsening atrocities by the Russians and masterful public relations by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is turning the public more and more toward support for Ukraine. In addition, Biden’s own party is all-in on painting Trump and Republicans as the party of Putin. Yet, if Biden sits back and lets Ukraine and Zelensky fall, that message blows up in their faces.

According to the most recent YouGov poll, support for Ukraine and antipathy toward Russia is rising across all demographic and partisan groups. Democrats have grown more hawkish than Republicans on all measures — but that is splitting hairs. For example, Democrats favor sanctions more than Republicans, but that difference is 80 percent (Democrats) vs. 74 percent (Republicans). Overwhelming majorities favor sanctions, aid and providing weapons. Pluralities favor NATO membership for Ukraine, cyberattacks on Russia and even a “no-fly zone.”

Perhaps most strikingly, Americans are in no mood to compromise with Putin: 67 percent oppose allowing Russia more influence over former Soviet territories; a mere 15 percent support rolling back NATO troops. Importantly, 55 percent think nuclear war is more likely now than five years ago — it looks like Americans are much more ready to call Putin’s bluff than Team Biden.

Zelensky has a sky-high approval rating among Americans at 64 percent favorable to 13 percent unfavorable — and that was before his tour de force speech before Congress. Meanwhile Biden is stuck underwater at 43 percent approval to 52 percent disapproval. Within his own party, Biden does slightly worse than Zelensky on handling of the Ukraine crisis: 72 percent of Democrats give Biden top marks; Zelensky gets 73 percent.

Russian propaganda and temporizing, craven politicians like Madison Cawthorn have not moved the needle for Putin. In fact, it is independent voters who are softer on Russia than Republicans or Democrats.

As much as Team Biden is fearful of Vladimir Putin, they have more to fear from an American public that is overwhelmingly in the corner of Ukraine and Zelensky.

At this point a Ukrainian victory — or even partial victory — will almost entirely be credited to Zelensky. Without more substantively and effectively opposing Russia, the odds for a mid-term electoral collapse grow.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. And he knows something about poker. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags countering Putin countering Russia Joe Biden nuclear threats Poker Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian threats Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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