Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"All In"

“It’s a bitch convincing people to like you.” – The Scissor Sisters.

Poker is a fascinating game. The 2000’s have seen a massive spike in the card game’s general popularity, culminating with weekly nights of Texas Hold-em at pretty much any bar and quite a few weekend parties as well. Its appeal to mass audiences is somewhat confounding, considering the general randomness of the game. Texas Hold-‘em poker can even be seen of ESPN on a regular basis and provides the viewer with a wide variety of characters who are “professional” players. They come from all walks of life. Some are lifetime gamblers, some internet moguls, mathematicians or even carpenter’s wives. The success of the individual gambler depends more on their ability to gauge their opponents’ hands and being able to master the art of the bluff, fooling other players about the true contents of your hand. Kenny Rogers put it perfectly in his 1978 classic song, The Gambler: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.” The main problem with poker’s mainstream popularity (and the main impetus for the public’s waning interest) is many players tend to ignore the last part of Mr. Rogers’ advice. The tendency to go “all in;” to put all your chips on the line during one hand is far too tempting. The sad result for many players is an overestimation of the odds and the eradication of their bank account. Even if there is not a cloud in the sky, sometimes the rain must fall.

There is little difference these days between poker players and politicians, except one expects most poker players to lie. In 2008, the United States was in the midst of its first election cycle where the statements of candidates were immediately recorded for posterity on You Tube, numerous political websites and blogs. The advent of cell phone cameras and DVD recorders assured even the most innocent and innocuous of blunders could be broadcast immediately to the entire world. The gamble politicians used to make was to promise the voting populace everything and anything they could; the rationale being the average voter has a short-term memory and broken promises and nasty attacks could be explained away with quickie lines attacking the opposing party. This philosophy worked for decades until 2008. It became dangerous to use a slanderous attack ad on your opponent and fatal to be caught lying. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was permanently damaged by her false claims of dodging sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia. Senator Elizabeth Dole’s campaign, seen as a safe win at the time, was derailed by an attack ad on her opponent, which implied she was an atheist. Worse yet was the footage broadcast from several rallies by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, which showed several people voicing hateful and false accusations toward his opponent, Barack Obama.

McCain’s campaign gambled that Sarah Palin’s continual attacks on Obama’s patriotism would catch on not only with the Republican base, but cause doubt in the voting public’s eye on Mr. Obama’s fitness for the highest office in the land. The widespread broadcast of racist hatemongers on national television and the internet forced the McCain camp to back down on their aggressive tactics and ultimately limped into a massive defeat on Election Day. Conversely, Mr. Obama held his political hand tight, refusing to enter major confrontations and choosing to rely on vague promises of “change” and “hope.” Ironically, his running mate, Joe Biden, saw his presidential ambitions end early in 2008 due to comments made about the future President of the United States. A poker player can only hold their hand for so long before being forced to enter the fray, a fact that has become all too evident for Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden as they enter the final third of their first year running the country.

The appeal of watching poker on television is the ability to see the hands of all the players and seeing the drama unfold before your eyes. Some players win with two pair, some lose with a straight. It would not be surprising if President Obama was an avid viewer of these games, given his ambitious unrolling of his agenda. Obama won the presidency largely because of his connection to voters via the internet. It would be foolish to think these people would accept the new president putzing around after promising so many things to American citizens. He was now forced to play his hand, regardless of the contents. One by one, the cards were put on the table for the entire world to judge. Stimulus: not too stimulating. Purchasing an automobile company on the taxpayer dollar: faulty spark plugs. Insuring America’s children through cigarette tax increases: a carcinogen worth inhaling. Closing Guantanamo Bay without actually closing it: worthless. Whacking a fly on national TV: super-cool. President Obama’s hand was a political full house. A hand capable of winning but still susceptible to defeat providing the opponent has a strong hand to counter.

Fortunately for Mr. Obama, his Republican opponents seem to have a two-pair hand at best and no face cards to show for it. The Republican counter to the stimulus was more tax cuts: been there, done that for eight years. Purchase of Government Motors: a fold. Taxing cigarettes to insure poor kids: fold again. Closing Gitmo and not closing it: the Joker’s out there somewhere and we better keep him at bay – even up. Killing a fly for public amusement: Unlikely partnership with PETA. The GOP tends to have a similar response to the Obama agenda. A table-talking bluff stating “my hand’s better than yours, but I’m not going to show it. But it’s better than yours. Nyahh, nyahh. Taunting is an expected, if not integral part of a card game, but eventually a player has to back up their gab. Eventually your opponent will call your bluff. It’s not very bright or respectable to ramp up the pot based on a low-end two pair hand. Sadly, this is Mr. Obama’s opposition. By encouraging this reckless behavior in his opponents, Obama has positioned himself for a win even if his game is weak. It has been said throughout the ages that a competitor is only as good as one’s opponent. If this is taken to a modern application, the President needs only a better two pair hand than the pathetic one held by his opponents.

President Obama’s political poker prowess was never more evident than his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Before the appointment was announced, it was largely believed Obama would appoint a woman or a minority to the high court. The hand was his; all his GOP counterparts had to do was anticipate and counter. Obama was ready for this and appointed Ms. Sotomayor. Given his knowledge of the internet, the president and his staff were most likely aware of her “wise Latina woman” statement and were well informed of her controversial decision to uphold affirmative action policy to the detriment of several New Jersey firefighters. Obama and his staff knew Sotomayor would be opposed with extremist rhetoric and the conservative elite fell for his bait. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, along with talk radio madman Rush Limbaugh, called Sotomayor a racist, not the best language if you want to endear the growing Latino population to your party. Once again, Obama held the rest of his cards, refusing to jump into this dialogue. Although Sotomayor’s position on affirmative action was controversial, it was overshadowed by extremist comments and accusations from the far right. Mr. Gingrich, who many have believed to be contemplating a presidential run against Obama in 2012, has crippled himself by alienating a voting base he needs to remotely be seen as a viable candidate. The state of Florida has a massive Latino population and it will be highly unlikely many of them will vote for a candidate who called the first Latino Supreme Court Justice a racist. It is almost mathematically impossible for anyone to win the presidency if they lose New York, California and Florida. Good luck with that pair of 7’s, Newt. It just ain’t happening.

Barack Obama continues to play his political hand, risking the viability of his presidency on health care reform. It is a bet that is largely seen as a no-win, making more citizens angry than those who would be appeased. He is playing with billion-dollar big boys, whose lobbies have thwarted each and every attempt to step on their turf. This political poker game has never been seen as winnable and tends to result in a backlash of fear of change from American citizens, as those knowledgeable with the Clinton administration’s health care initiative from 1994 would attest to. One of the main accusations leveled at Obama and his gang of meddling kids is why would they attempt so much so soon? The Scooby crew only solved one mystery at a time, why should the Mystery Machine think they need to multi-task? The Web 2.0 reality needs Scooby Doo at that famous poker table. If he just sits at the back of the bus eating sandwiches with Shaggy, nothing gets done except for full stomachs and inflated egos. President Obama has chosen to be involved until the mystery is solved. Hang around for health reform!

In 2008, almost every candidate for higher office, from the states to the congress to the senate to the presidency, campaigned on helping average citizens with their medical bills. All of them, Republican, Democrat or Independent, stated they were going to make things better. Most of them never said explicitly how they were going to do it, but it was a major part of their platform. A hand held up as a bluff, hoping they would not be called to show ideologically nothing. As the health care debate continues to rage (in more ways than one), it has become obvious to even those most novice at political games the majority of our elected officials are far too interested in preserving their own political skin (financially and electorally) than to act on their bluffing postures to actually fix something.

One of the worst of these poseurs is Senator Arlen Specter, newly a Democrat – used to be a Republican - and now just plain old, who was foolish enough to state in a public forum he had not read the health care bill. Any political guru will say it is commonplace for an elected official to delegate something as minute as reading a 1,000 – plus page bill to staffers and just be given the “Cliff’s Notes” version. It is one thing to perform this act of ignorance, it is another to state said ignorance to your constituents, assuming they will completely understand you have better things to do than the actual job you were elected for. Specter was exposed as a political charlatan, leaving no doubt the reason he switched party affiliations was only for his own best interests. Justifying ignorance is like a poker player requesting a misdeal because they left the card table for a potty break. If your hand sucks, it sucks. Period. If you make a mistake, it’s part of living life in the real world. Deal with it. No amount of fundraising, babbling or special interests will save Senator Specter from an almost certain defeat in the upcoming 2010 primary. Sadly, Specter will probably use his decades of special interest connections and influences and run independently as Senator Joe Lieberman did in 2006. Some folks just don’t know when the dealing is done and they no longer have a winnable hand. Good poker players know when to walk away. Career politicians unfortunately do not.

Residing right next to Mr. Specter is a doghouse. A Blue Dog house to be precise. Blue Dog is a term used to describe junior Democratic House members that were elected not on principals, but on the generic “not Bush” platform, which worked sold well to a voting public tired of war and a collapsed economy, but not as effectively with their congressional cohorts. These supposed “Blue Dogs” are really the “Yellow Dogs:” so afraid of losing their seat they would prefer to have literally nothing happen during their terms in office so they can state they accomplished something. The “Yellow Dogs” are the United States of Godot. Nothing to be done. Nothing to be done. They are the poker player who chooses to stay in the game, never commit to winning or losing, but long to ride out the hand just to stay in the game. The only significant difference between the “Yellow Dogs” and Senator Specter is the “Yellow Dogs” apparently know how to read. One can only stonewall for so long, however. There comes a time when you have to play your hand, even if you have no idea what to do with it. The “Yellow Dogs” aren’t out for publicity (a red herring) but have united for survival. If doing nothing except waiting is an attribute, it should be suggested that tax dollars would be saved if the ghost of Samuel Beckett would be elected as a proxy instead of these handful of boremongers standing around the Washington tree, one that is easily chopped down by those of more intellectual and intestinal fortitude.

All games, be it politics, poker, capitalism or communism always have some players who want to play the game as recklessly as possible. These individuals want to win, have little knowledge on how to traditionally do so, but play the game with the utmost fire, piss and vinegar. This is the player who brings their queen out on the third chess move, bets too much on a pair of Jacks and saves all their cash up to buy Boardwalk and Park Place. These folks don’t win very often but they make the games dangerous for those who play with them. These players do not want to win on the gentleman’s terms but choose to adopt a position of annihilation versus risk. Their philosophy is “all in” every game. Win or lose, they take it to the extreme without regard to their partners or opponents. These are the people you wouldn’t play “tag” with on the playground for fear they would shove you to the pavement just to prove a point. These boys and girls grow up, true believers, and they become the person most likely to succeed in stealing your parking spot or the last cup of coffee in the office. This philosophy could be taken as anarchistic, but it is a belief filled with nihilism. The idiom of “malice towards all” has shown itself in our great country like a beaten bully out for revenge or a defeated poker player crying fowl to the dealer.

There is an inherent defiance in many people when the game turns against their favor. It wasn’t me – someone cheated. Call for a mis-deal on a contingency only the objecting party seems to know about. I didn’t land on the giant leap in Chutes and Ladders – it must be Obama’s fault. I lost my turn on Candyland – Obama’s to blame. I played the Game of Life and had five kids and didn’t get my mansion – dammit, Obama, you suck! I want my Candyland country back! If you don’t give it to me, I’m going to knock the pieces down and restart the game until I get what I want. You cheated. I’m not sure how but I know you did – otherwise I would have won. This is the platform of the “Birthers,” who believe President Obama is an illegal alien and therefore should not be President of the United States. Without an electoral count to hold in question, as Democrats alleged in 2000 for George Bush, the losing faction has chose to invent a story to give their defeated ranks adrenaline.

The term “Birthers” is the term applied to the ultra right-wing nut-jobs who believe President Obama is not really the president as he actually born in the African country of Kenya. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the “Birther” movement has ground in the small populace of disaffected Americans (a clear majority of which are older, un-educated and white) tapping into the same fears held by the extreme left-wingers who believe the United States orchestrated 9/11. Even conservative pundit Ann Coulter has come out against this extremism. However, “Birthers” and 9/11 conspiracy loonies should have one thing in common: George W. Bush was not the President of the United States from 2001-2008: pretty much the whole country knows the real president was Dick Cheney.

“We’re not into music, we’re into chaos” – The Sex Pistols

Worst of all poker players (and gamers in general) are those who really don’t care. They may want to win but revel most in watching other players lose, forcing them to make plays which are completely illogical just to counter the general challenge to the rules of the game. This can be fun for a while, until the game night goes on for a few hours and the other players begin to realize the “joker” only wishes to prolong the agony as long as humanly possible. Music lovers cherish the myth of the Sex Pistols as revolutionaries and anarchists, but without the cold calculations of band manager Malcolm McLaren and the producing skills of Chris Thomas, it is unlikely one of the greatest rock and roll bands in history would have achieved this celebrated notoriety. Listening to their demo recordings can be compared to the irrational ramblings of a certain ex-governor of Alaska. Garbled, unfocused and lacking structure, Sarah Palin’s recent Facebook post describing “death panels” President Obama would incorporate under health care reform, succeeded in both shocking and alienating the masses. There’s something there, but it’s hard to conclude exactly what that something is, except for a rank amateur broadcasting a demo recording which should have definitely stayed in the friendly confines of a garage or basement. Defending Sarah Palin’s hate rhetoric is the musical equivalent of comparing G.G. Allin to the Beatles. It is plausible Allin’s fans have the same attitude towards chaos and outlandishness as Palin: angry, with a desire to break something for the simple reason that they can.

Uber-conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh has played into the “death panel” rhetoric, beginning to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and his policies to Nazism. Like the music of the aforementioned G.G. Allin, the listener tends to know what they’re going to get when they tune in. The problem is there are real disaffected individuals who are starting to hum this hate symphony in their sleep. G.G. Allin has a place in music, but probably not on the Teen Choice awards. Mr. Limbaugh has the inalienable right to express his opinion to his listeners. However, he does not have the legal right to encourage or incite any individual to commit acts of vandalism or violence. With the spraying of a swastika on a Georgia congressman’s office, he is dangerously close to crossing that line.

In defense of Mr. Limbaugh and his millions of listeners, 99 percent who have no probable desire to cause violence, Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer did nothing but fuel this fire by condemning American citizens at public town hall meetings. Bear in mind, true believers, there were many protesters from the advent of the Iraq war to the present day who were escorted or arrested exercising the same constitutional rights the “Birthers,” the “death panelists” and those who fear excessive government intrusion are using right now. They are finding themselves decrying the same tactics universally supported just a few years before. If we were to convert the actions of all the aforementioned players in this essay to a televised poker game, we would see a game filled with bluffing, lies and the proverbial card up the sleeve. There is no clear leader, only the continual raising of the ante with no expected winner. Any poker player will tell you a game isn’t worth playing if the integrity of its rules are called into question. Our politicians and pundits have exposed the 21st Century political game as a sham. They are not only going walking away, but running. The question remains what and who will they run to when it all goes down.

The heart of the American people should never be called into question. We are an exceptionally diverse group of individuals. Most of us take our neighbors at face value, believing that even if we disagree, we still wish the best for one another. Somewhere out there, we’re really not that different if we’re under the same flag of stripes and stars. Our leaders are the newest stars in our reality universe. It might have been ok when these political poker games were played behind closed doors. This sham of our government has exposed itself as willing to gamble with the health, freedom, intelligence and the collective integrity of the United States of America. It does not matter anymore if a health care bill is passed or defeated, when faith of citizens in good government is disintegrated and faith in the conscience of our fellow man becomes a measure of doubt, we all lose.

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