On the face of it, the total collapse of Barack Obama's momentum in his race for the Presidency seems puzzling — but any poker player will find the phenomenon all too familiar.
Obama doesn't know how to play a big stack in a no-limit tournament. He ran up an enormous lead in chips early on by taking chances — positioning himself as a new kind of Democrat, one who'd risk it all to live up to his principles. Then, when he had the Democratic nomination locked up, coffers filled with contributions from millions of small-time donors energized by his boldness and courage, he changed his style of play — cow-towed to the wicked Clintons, picked a safe running mate, started breaking his promises to his Progressive base.
It happens every day at the poker table. A guy sits down, plays aggressively, builds a big stack — then suddenly gets afraid of losing what he has and tightens up. Other players realize he's lost his nerve and begin bluffing him, stealing his blinds — and his chips start dribbling away. When you play poker trying not to lose — you lose.
John McCain, who's holding 7-2 off-suit, just pushed all his chips into the pot with the Sarah Palin stunt — one of the most daring bluffs in the history of American politics. “Don't call me,” McCain says, “or I'll accuse you of hating motherhood, small-town America and ordinary folks everywhere.” Obama's holding a pair of Jacks. If he calls McCain, if he just states the plain truth that Sarah Palin is a religious extremist (when she's talking in church, if not on national television) and a compulsive liar, he wins. But, as I say, he's lost his nerve. He thinks that if he lays down his Jacks, he might get an even better hand on the next deal.
He might, but that's not the point. You can't play poker when you've lost your nerve — when you aren't willing to risk it all, especially against an obvious bluff. It's a lesson Democrats never seem to learn.
Look for John McCain to win this particular tournament.
[After writing the above I happened to read an old report in The New Yorker from the campaign trail in Mondale's race against Reagan in 1984. Polls showed that voters agreed with Mondale on the issues, when they were listed one by one, but that they liked Reagan better as a man. The Mondale camp decided that they had to just keep hammering away at the issues and not attack Reagan, for fear of offending those who liked him so much — and because Mondale wasn't “comfortable” in the attack mode. In the election, Mondale carried his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.]