What Game Is John Boehner Playing?

Photograph by Luke Sharrett/The New York Times via Redux

“It’s an action-forcing event,” said John Boehner, “in a town that’s become famous for inaction.” He was speaking at a conference in Washington sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. He was referring to his decision to stage a fight this winter over increasing the federal government’s debt limit, which he confirmed after hoagies with the president the next day. The thing is, it’s not at all clear why he’s doing this, or what he thinks he has to gain by signaling such a fight so far in advance. To put it in the classic Washington formulation: What does John Boehner want?

We don’t live in his head or his office, which both seem like stress-filled environments anyway, and Boehner has not been forthcoming with details. So we’ll have to make some assumptions. This is where a game theorist can help. As it happens, we have one right here: Steven Brams worked under former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the 1960s and has written extensively on game theory, including most recently Game Theory and the Humanities. He says the first assumption is that every actor in a game is rational.

So let’s assume that: John Boehner is rational. What’s his game? Brams says that despite what the House speaker says, his game is not called “Balance the Budget.”

“If it were,” says Brams, “the question would be, how do we balance it, how great are the cuts?” Boehner isn’t talking about such details or outlining specific cuts. Game theorists think in terms of a matrix, a theoretical square that describes potential actions, in this case with President Obama on one axis and Speaker Boehner on the other. If the two had agreed to play a game that would erase federal budget deficits, says Brams, “the matrices would involve specifics of where the cuts would be made: ‘Cut this’ is one strategy, ‘cut that’ is another strategy.”

That’s out, then. But your intuition probably already told you that, and Boehner is still getting at something. So let’s start with what he can’t avoid, and work our way backward from there. By Jan. 1, 2013, Boehner—and everyone in Washington—has to have completed a game of chicken called “Extend the Bush Tax Cuts.” Boehner can’t not play this game. Or, rather, if he chooses not to play, he loses. In chicken, at least one side must swerve so that both may live. But the matrix in this game doesn’t look great for Boehner. In the worst-case scenario in the chicken matrix for “Extend the Bush Tax Cuts,” no one swerves and the tax cuts expire. It’s not great for the economy, but it’s not an immediate meltdown, either, which makes the worst-case, no-swerve outcome not a very compelling threat to the president.

So we know, as John Boehner must, that the Jan. 1 game is not a great game for him to play. He can avoid it by picking a different game, and this is the one he has announced. It’s a chicken game called “Raise the Debt Limit.” Familiar ground for the House Republicans, and a compelling matrix. If no one swerves, the U.S. fails to meet its obligations to debt holders. A twisted mess of steel and gasoline for everyone, including the president.

But even this isn’t the game Boehner is playing, says Brams. Boehner “doesn’t have enough information to see whether it’s a good strategy or not,” he says. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke at the same conference, where he made clear that Treasury’s deadline for raising the debt limit may extend into the new year. And Obama may be a lame-duck president this winter. Or the Republicans may be chastened by losses in the House. “It’s just rhetoric at this stage,” says Brams.

There is a problem with bargaining games. Theorists refer to it, with their characteristic directness, as the “toughness dilemma”—or, as Brams puts it, “How far do you go to be tough but not look like you’re sabotaging everything?” The Tea Partiers, in the House and in the country, do not suffer from a toughness dilemma. They are certain that more of it is good. To look tough is good for bargaining, good for Boehner’s crankiest freshmen, and good to animate the Republican base in the middle of an election, when most of the attention is on the presidential candidates and precious little is being paid to, say, the Speaker of the House.

In other words, Boehner just played a game called “Remember Me?” He won.

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