Walkouts: Good for protests, bad for governance.

Where did the #Resistance go? In the last month, Democrats gave up a principled government shutdown and a deadlock on the Dreamers because of what? How dare they! Why did they sell out the…

Wait, hold on. What did they get?

And so on. The Democrats (supposedly) sold out the Dreamers for kids, disaster victims, the elderly, veterans, addicts, poor people, and those who need healthcare. Y’know, the people that Democrats have been saying they care about for years. Not just congressional Democrats, but their partisan base. Without a deal to open the government, there’s no government. A government is what Democrats want. So they took a gamble and made a deal. They let one government shutdown lapse after a weekend, and another after several hours. They did not embrace the shutdown strategy as a way of life.

This enraged many liberals. What they wanted from Democrats was vocal resistance, which sounds great. But a shutdown is a kind of strategy that Democrats aren’t used to. In game theory, a take-ball-go-home tactic is called a scorched earth defense. Its cornerstone is that no matter who gets hurt, the enemy must suffer. This is most often associated with wartime, such as the Russian Army’s decimation of its homeland to avoid resources falling to Sweden … then France … then Germany. Russia is so proficient at this, they have ruined generations of their own people to save their nation. It’s something we can hardly imagine in our country.

Yet during the Obama years, the GOP got extraordinarily good at this. They stalled funding for Obamacare even though the majority of Americans wanted health insurance reform. They stood against the stimulus despite it saving American businesses. They held the debt ceiling hostage, which ruined America’s credit rating. And when America was overwhelmed with grief over school shootings, Republicans made themselves the face of killing children, guaranteeing that Generation Mass Shooting would overthrow them as soon as they were of legal age. But in the short term, this strategy worked. Obstruction became the Republican brand. Governance did not.

Liberals wanted the Democrats to adopt the GOP’s scorched earth defense and they couldn’t do it. They made a deal to keep the government open, without addressing the needs of the Dreamers, who were still facing a March 5 deadline for disaster. Then the Trump Budget—the thing that actually apportioned the money for the executive branch through 2019—was released and the Democrats said no thank you, sir. Suddenly, the budget deal was no longer roses. Everything that mattered got cuts. The Democrats blocked it. It went nowhere. Like Trump’s last budget, it’s DOA.

Congress looks likely to ignore the administration as it crafts a budget. The result won’t be everything the Democrats want, but it won’t be anything the White House wants. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are united in one belief: spend more on everything. Only the White House is left out of the discussion, and despite ranting from Trump and grumbling from John Kelly, they will just have to live with it.

But in that chaos, what happened to the Dreamers? They got caught up in the subsequent debate over immigration policy, and came out moderately well for a group that got used as human shields by a vicious president. The House and Senate figured out a strategy that saved the Dreamers, gave Trump his wall, and punted some of the thornier issues down the path. If Trump signed it, that is. Trump rejected the deal. He had a chance to get his beloved Wall, and he turned it down. He thought he had leverage. Then suddenly he didn’t, as first a federal judge blocked the administration’s DACA ruling and then the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, blowing the March 5 DACA deadline to kingdom come. Trump had lost.


The Democrats won the budget standoff, even when it looked like they lost. Trump lost the budget, the Wall, the sword of Damocles over the Dreamers. March 5 will come and go with DACA still in place, the government will be roughly the same as it was before (maybe bigger!), and the Democrats will go to their base with Trump firmly cast as the bad guy. There is no rosier scenario possible for the out-of-power party. The Democrats made the right bet in a rigged casino, and they won on all fronts.

How did they win? They stuck to their brand, and let the administration and the Republicans self-immolate by sticking to theirs. The Democrats could have gone a very different road, forcing a government shutdown on behalf of the Dreamers and casting themselves as the party of obstruction. To do so, they would’ve had to abandon everyone helped by government.

But holding kids and disaster victims hostage is how the Republicans work. The Republican brand is anti-government. They obstruct, collude, and threaten to burn everything down. That’s their move. The audience that wants to burn everything down is mostly Republican. It has a lot of guns and a shortage of tolerance for those that are unlike them. In short, it’s not caring.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a brand that’s about caring. They support families, veterans, sick people, people of color, the poor, workers, voters, and immigrants. But they don’t burn all those people to help one group of those people. They make hard choices. They do what they can when they’re out of power. That’s not as sexy as “burn it all,” which is why we have Donald and not Hillary in the big chair. But it’s what they do. Fundamentally, they don’t do anything else well. They just care about people. That’s their move.

Liberals who excoriated the Democratic leaders fell for a self-inflicted fallacy: that saying they cared about the Dreamers would be more effective than attempting to win the standoff. This is what game theorists call cheap talk, the communication that is costless to transmit, non-binding, and unverifiable. It sounds good, but it does nothing. There was no winning a standoff over the Dreamers with talk of a shutdown they couldn’t sustain, and that they didn’t want to occur. The Democratic leaders realized this, and took the short-term pain of looking bad so they could smash the opposition. It worked.

I’m a Democrat, and I know the Democrats must #resist. We need to focus on capturing Congress and bum-rushing Trump out of town. We do. But we won’t do it at the expense of families. We won’t do it at the expense of veterans. We won’t do it at the expense of disaster victims. We won’t do it at the expense of immigrants. That is, unless we have to. And if we have to, then we will lick our wounds, get back to work, and defend them the next day.

If we’re willing to give up all those people to win in November, we’re not Democrats. We’re just bomb throwers. Might as well be Republicans.

This is the sixteenth installment of a series of posts on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, the debt, the NFL, harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, and parades. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.