Game Theorist on Shutdown: “It’s Not Brinkmanship”

Boehner's ability to end the standoff makes his bargaining power lower, not higher

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.

Many are calling the federal government shutdown the result of “brinkmanship.” But as a game theorist, I beg to differ. Brinkmanship is not just threatening to do something terrible. Essential to brinkmanship is deliberately giving up control.

(MORE: Shutdown: No End in Sight)

The best theorists of brinkmanship are the Nobel Prize-winning game theorist Thomas Schelling and the novelist Dashiell Hammett.  Schelling wrote that brinkmanship is “the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accomodation.” In the 1941 film adaptation of Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade, famously played by Humphrey Bogart, tells Kasper Gutman that Kasper cannot get the secret of the Maltese Falcon out of him by threatening to kill him, because if Kasper kills him, the secret will die with him. Kasper replies: “In the heat of action, men are likely to forget where their best interests lie, and let their emotions carry them away.”  In other words, effective brinkmanship must involve getting carried away and giving up control.  If I play “chicken” with another driver, if I put a large visible lock on my steering wheel, making it impossible for me to swerve, my opponent must swerve because I have no choice. By deliberately losing my ability to steer the car, I win.

But that’s not what the Republicans have done. If Speaker John Boehner simply let the House vote on the Senate’s “clean” funding measure unrelated to the Affordable Care Act, it would almost certainly pass: all that is necessary is for 17 Republicans to join with the 200 Democrats, and already 12 Republicans have stated that they would.  Boehner is in control.  He can end the standoff more or less instantly.

Given the power he has to end the standoff, Boehner might be thinking that he can control the shutdown’s downside risk, satisfying the far right as much as possible until the national polls start to really turn against the Republicans. Perhaps the reason we are in this mess is because we can relatively easily get out of it. But this doesn’t get him as much leverage.

If Boehner were to engage in true brinkmanship, he might threaten, for example, to resign as Speaker and throw the House into chaos.  By threatening to deliberately lose control, he can say to the Democrats that they can either negotiate with him or negotiate with the true crazies.  In other words, Boehner’s ability to singlehandedly end the standoff makes his bargaining power lower, not higher.

Republicans who want to win a national election someday have to figure out how to discipline or pay off those House Republicans who care only about primary challenges in their quite conservative local districts. But maybe this is impossible. Maybe there are no custodians of the Republican brand nationally.  It is hard to imagine how Republicans as a whole benefitted from the endless chaotic debates in the 2012 Republican primary, for example.  If no one is in control of the Republican party nationally, then brinkmanship is not possible because deliberately giving up control requires having control in the first place.

Michael Chwe, the author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist, is Professor of Political Science at UCLA. The views expressed are solely his own.