Friday, October 17, 2008

Cards and Dice

If a stopped clock is right twice a day news magazines can tell you something useful once in a while. And if you catch it at just the right time a human interest story can be interesting.

Earlier this Summer Time Magazine published Candidates' Vices: Craps and Poker. It seems that both Senators are gamblers. John McCain enjoys shooting craps. The thrill of rolling the dice and taking whatever Lady Luck hands out has worked its magic on him since his Navy days. Barrack Obama is a cuthroat poker player and made a lot of his early contacts in games with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Every pot was important even in $1 ante/$3 limit games.

It's things like this that give real insight into a person's character, and I thought it would play out in the campaign.

Well, it certainly has.

Senator McCain's campaign has been marked by unexpected gestures that have come out of nowhere. He's comfortable with risk and uncertainty. If something works or his gut tells him it will he'll keep trying to make the point. If it doesn't he's not afraid to go with something completely random or ride a hunch.

I think that's why he's been willing to change positions to fit his base or run the same sort of campaign in 2008 that was run against him in 2000. It certainly explains the choice of Sarah Palin. Another candidate would have gone with a safe choice. John McCain was risk-tolerant enough to make a quick decision with unpredictable consequences and bet almost everything on the outcome. If the gamble pays off, it's all good. If it doesn't you don't curse the laws of chance. You make another bet and win, crap out or get another point to make.

It also shows up in Senator McCain's personal style in the general election. His strategy is sound, or it will need to be changed. He's passionate about the campaign and has a lot riding on the outcome. The emotional ups and downs are part of the process. He goes with them. When things are going well, he's happy and shows it. When they're not he doesn't bother to hide his frustration or try to lie with his body language. The dice have already been thrown, so the real John Sidney McCain is on display until he passes them to the next shooter.

Senator Obama's style, well, let's say I wouldn't want to be sitting across the card table from him. The campaign has been very carefully run. Caucuses favored the outsider with a strong grass-roots organization, so he folded in some of the primaries. He guessed that the Clinton campaign wouldn't be flexible enough to get past early disappointments, so he raised the stakes in the early contests. A number of his strategic moves like rejecting the 527s or going for points instead of a knockout in the debates aren't emotionally satisfying. But they bespeak a man who wants to win the pot more than he wants to beat the other guys at the table.

Most of all he's kept everything cool. He hardly ever raises his voice. His body language is very self-contained, and he gives nothing away. That's a poker player at work. If you lose your temper or other players can see your "tells" they'll eat you alive. Lady Luck is a bitch, and over a long game you can't trust her. It all comes down to skill and knowing more about the other players than they know about you. Or more than they know about themselves if you're a real pro.

Which approach is better? That really depends on the deep structures of your character. Do you prefer certainty or clarity? Trust to luck or play the odds? Wear your heart on your sleeve or play them close to the vest? Which vices and basic values make a better President?

Risk and the chaos of the universe are always with us. Only a blind fool would deny it. But me? I think lottery tickets are a tax on people who can't do arithmetic. So let's give W. C. Fields the last word.

Is this a game of chance?
Not the way I play it.

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