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Are Progressives on Tilt?

There’s an fascinating debate going on in liberal circles about just how serious progressive Democratic congressmen are about voting down a health care bill that does not contain a public option. The threat to do so has been made frequently and forcefully, both by rank-and-file members and by the Majority Leader. But is it a credible one?

On the one hand, I’d have trouble being persuaded that progressives would actually prefer to maintain the status quo than to pass a bill without a public option. Now, I can certainly imagine a bill being so bad that it would be a net setback to progressives’ goals — say you had something without a public option, employer mandate, or a national exchange, but with a strict individual mandate and which only provided subsidies up to 200 percent of poverty — and that this bill were funded through a fairly regressive means like a value added tax. That would be a pretty terrible piece of policy and progressives (and most everyone else not employed by an insurance company) would be right to oppose it. But if you took something more like the current House bill, stripped it of the public option (replacing it with co-ops, I guess) and maintained everything else, this bill would still accomplish several important progressive and pubic policy goals (and avoid a major near-term political disaster for the President). Progressives, rightly, would like such a bill less. But for them to prefer the status quo to such a solution doesn’t seem credible. That’s why a lot of people have trouble taking the progressives’ threats at face value.

On the other hand, suppose that we reverse this argument: are there Blue Dogs who would prefer the status quo to a bill with a public option — but would prefer a bill without a public option to the status quo? The qualifier is important. Three House committees have already approved bills containing public options. In each case, some Blue Dog votes were lost. But how many of these Blue Dogs would have voted to approve the bill if it didn’t contain a public option? That is far less clear. Some of them might have, almost certainly. But progressives ought to be wary of Blue Dogs (and Republicans) who argue against a public option — when they may simply be opposed to the entire concept of meaningful health care reform.

To recap:

A. If the only two choices were to pass an (otherwise decent) bill without a public option and to pass nothing at all, and everyone knew these were the only two choices, I believe the bill would almost certainly pass; progressives would cave.

B. On the other hand, if the only two choices were to pass a bill with a public option and nothing at all, and everyone knew these were the only two choices, I believe at least some Blue Dogs would cave and the bill would stand a decent shot at passing. This is far less clear, however; it is incumbent upon progressives to determine whether a bill with a public option really does stand a shot a passage. If not then their threat is idle at best, and self-destructive at worst.

The reason that I wrote earlier this week that a bill with a public option was “probably” dead is because I’ve long believed that leadership from the White House might make the difference between a bill with a public option just barely passing and it just barely failing to do so. When the White House appeared to backtrack on the public option over the weekend, it seemed either that they had already counted the votes and concluded that the public option could not pass, or that they thought the situation was too tenuous to warrant the gamble. But the situation could also be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: the public option might have passed, if only the White House had been willing to agitate for it — but since they weren’t willing to do so, it couldn’t.

That notwithstanding, let’s go back to the branch on the tree where both proposition (A) and proposition (B) are both true: a sufficient majority of the Congress prefers a bill without a public option to the status quo, but also a majority prefers a bill with a public option to the status quo. This is where things get interesting and where a lot of the game-theory stuff comes into play. And if this is the case, then I would not underestimate the progressives.

From progressives’ point of view, they have been waiting many, many years for this moment — for an ostensibly fairly liberal Democratic president, an ostensibly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, an ostensibly lock-solid majority in the House, and a discredited opposition party. For a variety of reasons, the situation isn’t as good for progressives as it appears on paper and never was. But that doesn’t mean that expectations aren’t very high. And yet they’ve seen little progress on climate change, on gay rights, on torture policy, on regulating the banks — and now they’re running into a stiff headwind on health care. It’s 1994 all over again. To the progressive mind, it seems to be — pardon my French — the same old bullshit re-asserting itself. The moment is on the verge of being lost.

In poker, one of the situations when a player is most prone to go on tilt is when he had been on a winning streak and then begins to lose. It’s one thing when you simply aren’t getting cards all night and lose money slowly and steadily. When this happens, most poker players are pretty good at accepting that it just isn’t their night and will continue to play reasonably well, if perhaps a little overcautiously. But if you had been winning — if you had already “booked” the win in your mind — and then you start losing, things can get really, really ugly. You’ll make bold, rash, irrational gambles. Your big win will turn into a small win and, if you’re not careful, into a big loss.

This is sort of the situation that progressives are in right now. They’re not in a mood to compromise. They’re in a mood to gamble. This may well be irrational. It may well prove to be self-destructive. But the one thing you never, never want to do with someone who is on tilt is to try to bluff them off their hand.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.