I was playing poker in Atlantic City this weekend, so I’ve had poker on the brain as I’ve been thinking about President Trump’s tactics during the partial government shutdown, which ended on Friday after Congress passed a three-week continuing resolution to fund the government. What will happen at the end of the next three weeks is very much up in the air. But the way Trump has played his hand so far on the shutdown has a lot in common with how bad poker players tend to cost themselves money.
If you read the headline of this post, you may have assumed that it refers to Trump’s getting outmaneuvered on the shutdown by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I do think Trump was outmaneuvered by Pelosi, but the analogy to poker is a little different from that. It has more to do with Trump’s overall strategy toward the presidency.
In general, the strategic goal of poker is to put your opponent to tough decisions. If you see one of those hands on TV where one player is thinking for several minutes about whether to call or fold on the river, that usually means the other player has played his or her hand well, putting the opponent in a no-win position by leaving just the right amount of doubt about whether it’s a bluff or a real hand.
As a corollary, good players play in such a way as to avoid putting themselves to tough decisions. Bad players, conversely, tend to paint themselves into corners. They’ll curse their luck when they suddenly realize that a hand they’d assumed was a winner might be no good. But more often than not, it reflects a mistake they made earlier in the hand, such as playing a weak hand that they should have folded to begin with.
Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like Trump, who didn’t have a lot of good choices on the shutdown. He could have:
- Caved to Pelosi and agreed to reopen the government without a border wall. But that would have risked undermining perceptions that Trump is a strong negotiator and leader and risked disappointing his base.
- Maintained the shutdown. But that was getting more costly by the day for Trump, as his approval ratings got worse and more and more Americans blamed him for the shutdown — and as federal workers went without paychecks and the entire air traffic system was on the verge of chaos.
- Struck a deal with Democrats. But because Democrats had all the leverage — the shutdown was hurting Trump a lot more than it was hurting them — it would have had to be a far more generous deal than the one that presidential adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner had cooked up, generous enough that it would entail serious policy concessions and perhaps lead to a backlash from his base.
- Declared a national emergency to build a border wall — an option that very much remains on the table. But that would likely be extremely unpopular, would create a precedent that a future Democratic president could exploit, might not be held up by the courts, and would trigger at least some objections from other Republican lawmakers and perhaps also from parts of the military.
I tend to agree with my colleague Perry Bacon Jr. that conceding to Pelosi was Trump’s least-worst option. In fact, I think Trump probably would have been better off just conceding on the border wall completely, instead of kicking the can down the road for three weeks. But I’m far from certain of that conclusion. The point is that all of Trump’s options stunk, and like in the case of a bad player who limped into the pot with 7-2 offsuit (the worst hand in poker) and then got caught up in a huge pot with a bad hand, it was 100 percent Trump’s fault.
Nor was the shutdown a case where things unexpectedly took a rough turn for Trump.
It’s been obvious the whole time that it was liable to end in political (if not also literal) disaster. Trump was an unpopular president using an unpopular technique to push for an unpopular policy, and he was doing it just after Republicans had lost 40 seats to Democrats in the midterm elections while Trump tried to scaremonger voters on immigration. I can certainly think of lapses in presidential judgment that were more consequential in hindsight than the shutdown, but not all that many that were so obvious in advance.
And this isn’t the first time that Trump and Republicans have gotten themselves in trouble by picking a fight over an unpopular policy. GOP efforts to undo Obamacare were similar to the shutdown, since Republicans risked either passing a massively unpopular repeal bill or breaking a promise they’d made to voters in 2016. The dynamics over the Republican tax bill were also similar in several respects. Republicans ultimately passed their bill in that case, but they paid a price for it in the midterms in congressional districts with high state, local and property taxes, which can no longer be deducted beyond $10,000 under the new law. Confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after he was accused of committing sexual assault when he was in high school, when Republicans could have withdrawn his name and chosen a less controversial nominee, is another case in which Republicans had to choose from among several difficult options.
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Part of this is just a way of saying that public opinion does have consequences: Sometimes it prevents you from passing unpopular policies, and sometimes you pass them but suffer electorally. And sometimes, it’s both: Republicans didn’t get their full Obamacare repeal, but health care was a huge issue in the midterm campaign nonetheless.
If Trump doesn’t believe the polls showing himself and his policies, such as the border wall, to be unpopular, then maybe that’s part of the problem. (There are a lot of ways to be bad at poker, but probably the most common one is to play too many hands because you overestimate your own abilities.) This being FiveThirtyEight, I feel obligated to point out that the notion that polls systematically underestimate Trump is on shaky ground. But if Trump thinks polls are fake news and if he hires advisers who encourage that perception, that could explain why he constantly puts himself in such politically untenable positions.
There’s something else about those bad poker players that I think might apply to Trump.
Some of them (not all by any means) actually do have decent people-reading skills. They can sometimes suss out, through body language and table talk, whether your hand is relatively strong or relatively weak and make better decisions on that basis. It’s almost never enough to overcome poor strategic and technical play; poker is mostly a mathematical game. But those talents can help to stem losses, especially at lower stakes where opponents are more likely to exhibit tells. The bad players have their fair share of winning days when they’re catching cards.
Trump, similarly, has gotten a long way on the basis of hustle and luck — he was lucky in several important respects to be elected president. There are some cases in which he has displayed solid (if unconventional) tactical instincts, from his negotiations with foreign leaders to his handling of the media to his belittling of his primary opponents. That’s not to say he always gets these decisions right or even does so anywhere near approaching a majority of the time. But he gets enough “wins” — he became president of the United States! — to sustain his ego and not prompt a lot of self-reflection.
But Trump has no sense for which battles to pick and seemingly little awareness of his own unpopularity and the consequences it has for the presidency. Moreover, although Trump sometimes seems to realize when he has gotten himself into a no-win position, he doesn’t recognize how often his own decisions are responsible for putting him there. The presidency is a long game, and a much harder one than being a real-estate developer or a reality television host. The scary possibility for Trump — and I do mean merely a possibility — isn’t that the chaos of the shutdown, coming on the heels of the midterms and as the Russia investigation still looms over him, is a new low for him. It’s that it’s the new normal.