Friday, November 11, 2016

Hanging by a Thread

Hanging by a thread. A sliver of hope for functioning democracy. Only the filibuster now permits some small sense of representation in Congress for half the voters. In Hard Choice for Mitch McConnell: End the Filibuster or Preserve Tradition, Carl Hulse walks through the options, saying that McConnell "is what is known on Capitol Hill as an institutionalist, a strong believer in the traditions and practices in the Senate", going on to say Mr. McConnell loves the Senate rules and would be loath to change them." So even a veteran reporter like Hulse falls into the storytelling. It's a great story. McConnell as the protector of cherished tradition. Except that it is not true.

McConnell is, of course, the person who upped the ante this year in the dangerous game of tit-for-tat by cancelling any possibility of hearings for the Obama Supreme Court nominee.  That action creates the possibility of delegitimizing the high Court. For some of us, the outcome of the election coupled with the move by McConnell did that.

We are caught in a repeated game of prisoners dilemma*, but with a bias in payoffs that favors Republican policy objectives. Republicans in Congress decided long ago that obstruction of all proposed legislation worked to their advantage. McConnell decided after the 2008 election that opposing all legislation favored by Obama would politically work to the advantage of the Republican Party in subsequent elections. In 2010, this strategy was shown to be successful. With the 2012 reelection of Obama, the strategy continued. The danger was that the machinery of federal government would limp along during the full two terms of the Obama presidency. But that was OK too, bringing more Americans into the fold of skepticism of government.

Hulse and most pundits like a good story. A great story is personal. The reader likes to focus on a character, not a process. But the real story is about the process, the parliamentary maneuvers along the lines of a repeated game of tit-for-tat in game theory with grim triggers.

McConnell has shown that he knows how game theory works. The move on filibusters needs to be viewed together with the House Republican strategy of increasing threats to shut down the federal government and default on government debt. The Republicans' brinkmanship banks on the theory that Democrats care more about saving the country than they do.

Democrats want to save that dog more than Republicans do. Both sides know that. Republicans are willing to sacrifice the federal government in favor of small government, but do have a place in their hearts for the military, which must be funded.  Still, the repeated game favors Republicans who show themselves willing to pull the "grim trigger". Republicans like to win and are willing to take chances. Democrats like to cooperate. But prisoners dilemma is a noncooperative game. In a repeated game of prisoners dilemma, both sides may compromise for the long term good of the country, but when one side defects and continues to defect, putting party over country, the ultimate result may be disastrous for the country and, at that time,  both sides lose big.

McConnell's "hard choice" is not the one described in the article. He sees the choice only in game theory terms. His next move is either to (1) eliminate the filibuster (with enough support in his caucus) with some combination of parliamentary maneuvers at the beginning of the next Congress and blame the Democrats for their anticipated refusal to compromise, or (2) keep the filibuster for two years to see how that works out with the possibility of eliminating it when the Congress reconvenes in 2019, still with a Republican president. McConnell's decision will not be based on his "love" for traditions of the Senate. He will decide whether eliminating the filibuster and ramming through massive legislation over the next two years plays to the advantage of Republicans over the long run.

The "best response" in game depends on one's utility function. Paradoxically, if Democrats obstruct like the Republicans have, which they can only do if the filibuster survives, they will be labeled as being just as bad as the Republicans have been and therefore "both sides do it". But if Democrats relent and do not filibuster because it is the "right thing" to do for the country, that will mean that the Republican strategy to thwart the functioning of the institutions of democracy in the post-2008 era was completely successful.

So the McConnell move to obstruct all Obama legislation in 2008 was the "grim trigger" in a repeated game of prisoner's dilemma. The move to hold no hearings on the Supreme Court nominee this year upped the ante - he gave himself a free move when Democrats lacked the power in the Senate to stop him. That move had a positive payoff no matter what happened next. Citizens who believe in democracy were not going to cast their vote in the Senate, House, or for President based on that move by McConnell. His framing the issue cynically - "let the people decide the next Justice when they vote for President" - deliberately obfuscates the reality of the underlying process.

If Democrats had won the Senate, worst case would be the approval of Garland as Supreme Court Justice in the lame duck (maybe) had Clinton won, or use of the filibuster to thwart nominees in the next Congress - now worse than the outcome of hearings in the Senate anyway.  But if a Republican won the White House, he would nominate the Justice, which becomes a win. Nothing to lose for the Republicans. Everything to lose for the country, at least if you value the institutions of goverment, a point that Carl Hulse does not quite understand. His piece appears in the straight news section, not the Opinion pages, despite the questionable statements - the opinions- about McConnell's alleged love of the institution of the Senate he is prepared to unravel. Now that the election is over, we can expect the so-called straight journalists to continue to played, but not like the campaign season. The Republicans control the functioning of the government. Straight news stories will center on the Republicans as the government. The narrative will start there. Democrats will have a chance to provide the counter-narrative. "Fair and balanced" will still mean that Republicans tell the story - they go first -- and therefore control the direction of the narrative. Democrats get to go second, like playing black in a chess match. Democrats will get to rebut claims by Republicans, but will not get the story told. Just like the campaign all this year.

The greatest danger of the game may be that the Democratic side caves in and voters eventually perceive - correctly- voting for a Democrat as president results in a stymied Congress, -- so what if that is due to a policy of obstruction by Republicans -- but voting for a Republican president unlocks the Congress for accomplishments - appointment of Supreme Court justices and other judges approved by the Senate, laws passed, less vitriol due to the greater amenability of Democrats, fewer investigations of the President just because. That has been the direction of democracy and the little remains to halt the downward slide - but the filibuster if it lasts.

*The game is similar to prisoners dilemma- the result is suboptimal for the country, but a more precise illustration will follow.

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