“Don’t call my bluff”

I don’t think Obama said that to Cantor, because it wasn’t Obama who was bluffing.

Unless I see a transcript, I refuse to believe that Barack Obama said that to Eric Cantor.

Not because it sounds testy; I think we’re going to see a lot of Obama’s testy side between now and what I expect to be a Republican capitulation that will both leave the GOP formed in a circular firing squad and demonstrate to any voter who’s paying attention the utter fraudulence of the Republican pretense to care about fiscal responsibility.

No, I don’t believe he said that because it would have reflected an ignorance of poker. If you’re bluffing, of course your opponent should call, and so of course you’d never say “Don’t call my bluff.” You might say, “Think I’m bluffing? Go ahead: call and see.”

Or you might say – more relevant to the President’s current position – “You’re bluffing. I call.”

The Republican leadership has been four-flushing from the git-go. (Some of the Tea Party Caucus types are just living in an alternate reality.) Not only are Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell unwilling to force the government into defaulting on its obligations, they’re also unwilling to take the heat for actual cuts in named programs. Railing against “spending” in the abstract is just good clean fun, but of course they don’t want to have to explain to 65-year-olds that they have to wait two more years to get Medicare.

That was the point of the Obama move that has Jonathan so upset: it forced the GOP to back away publicly from something the voters hate. They were bluffing. He called. Now he’s going to rake in the chips.

Update Lots of good commentary below. My favorite line, which may have a good element of truth in it: “The Tea Partiers are holding 2S, 2C, 3S, 4C, 5S, and think they’re looking at a straight flush.”

One thought is that Obama did say “Don’t call my bluff,” implying “… because I’m not bluffing.” I’d believe that if Obama were merely someone who knew about bluffing in the abstract, and for whom “calling a bluff” is what Orwell termed a “dead metaphor.” Harder to believe from an actual poker player.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

25 thoughts on ““Don’t call my bluff””

  1. You’re probably right, but even if he did say that, in a country where people routinely confuse literally with figuratively, it could be a vote-getter. What’s a bit more interesting is whether he really said that “Americans won’t be happy if both sides keep posturing and benefit checks and other bills aren’t paid”, per the subtitle of the LA Times piece, about today’s meeting, at:


    Now, why in the world would President Obama imply that both sides are “posturing”? Isn’t he on one of those sides?

    (The wording of the quote from a “Democratic official familiar with the talks” in the body of the article is a bit different, but the gist is the same.)

  2. Various media are saying that Obama “stormed” out, “walked” out, etc. All of which makes him seem temperamental–and maybe that’s occasionally ok. But I suspect what happened is that as Obama was getting up to leave, Cantor again tried to force his non-starter idea for a third time, and Obama simply said “no” as he left.

    Cantor is maddening. I hope the internal chaos in the GOP (the circular firing squad between Boehner, Cantor, McConnell and others) ends up pushing Cantor from his position. He is intractable in a slightly lunatic way.

  3. Yes, the Republicans have no leaverage in this hostage taking scenario. Obama, an experienced negotiator, Boehner and McConnell know this, but Cantor is more in league with the lunatic kamikaze base of teabaggers, that are driving the GOP over the cliff.

  4. I agree with Matt and Steve about Cantor. But the whole problem here is that Cantor isn’t in league with the kamikazes because he’s stupid – or at least, he doesn’t have to be stupid to throw his lot in with the crazies. For Cantor, the best possible outcome is that Boehner makes a deal with Obama and Pelosi to avoid torpedoing the US economy – and Cantor denounces Boehner’s abject betrayal of Teahaddi principles and rides a wave of right-wing outrage all the way to the speaker’s chair. It’s a doubly disloyal strategy – disloyal to the country, because the strategy demands that Cantor refuse to back any remotely plausible deal to avoid default, and disloyal to his party leader, whom the strategy is calculated to depose. But it’s a strategy that seems likely to get Cantor the outcome he wants. All he has to do is torpedo any bargain that’s on offer.

  5. Yeah, he *might* have said it…it sounds like the kind of thing one might say out of frustration…and god knows that spending more than 5 minutes in a room with Eric Cantor could easily peg the needle on the frustration meter.

    I’m kind of interested in the “no other president would have sat through such negotiations” claim. I have to say, that meshes with a thought that’s really begun to bother me. I’ve rejected claims about anti-Obamaism being rooted in racism. Jeez, just look at how disrespectful they were towards Clinton, I’ve said. It’s liberals (and centrists and Democrats) they hate; no need to invoke the racism hypothesis… But I’m starting to doubt that. From Joe Wilson’s “you lie” to Cantors sneering derision, something seems different. I’ve begun to ask myself, roughly: have conservatives just ramped up their crazy? Or is this something else? It just seems to me that there is an added degree or element of disrespect in play. It’s not just Congress exerting its authority…I don’t have a problem with that in and of itself. It’s the disrespect that concerns me.

  6. I think in context if he said it he plainly would have meant, “Don’t call on the assumption that I’m bluffing,” with the implicit conclusion, “(because I’m not).” I think that’s actually a fairly ordinary colloquial usage of the setnence, and it’s particularly forgivable in extemporaneous spoken conversation, which typically lacks the verbal precision of writing.


  7. Winston where have you been? Archie Bunker is once again ascendant. Has been ever since “that colored” took over the White House. The difference this time is Archie isn’t some funny and sweet uninformed nincompoop with a good but hidden heart. Back then, Archie got fair and just play, and he was gently poked at, by a nation watching the same three tv channels. Now Archie is a rip-roaring racial nihilist, who understands neither his racism nor his nihilism. Nor is Archie being asked by Norman Lear or any other forces to self-examine his inner man.

    Which is to say:

    Archie’s consciousness now has no counter-point. With a myriad-myriad of channels and urls we (and he) can no longer examine culture in any sort of “All in the Family” way. And so today’s Archie gets a ton of cleverly contrived emails and Murdoch TV shows that have convinced him a foreign born Muslim president is taking away his guns. You say no? I say: Looky, David Duke may be running for president again; and my 80-year neighbor, a little old lady, joked that if Obama gets elected she’ll have to assassinate the socialist herself. We all have neighbors like that…

    This is not to suggest Cantor is a covert racist. Only to say there is a great and seething mass of it boiling away in the unexamined intellectual bunkers that lie beneath the teabagger party. How could it not seep upwards and “color” their attitudes towards this president? It has to have. I mean really, you’d have to believe Sarah Palin is presidential material not to recognize these shadow forces at play…

  8. Mark: The Tea Partiers are holding 2S, 2C, 3S, 4C, 5S, and think they have a straight flush.

    Winston: I do think there’s a racist element driving the degree of The Crazy now–Obama very face shows the old, white “silent majority” that the country is changing, is always changing, will always change. But there’s more to it than that. Back in the 1990s, the right wing could fool itself that, because Clinton didn’t win with a majority of the popular vote, the country wasn’t “really” rejecting Republicans. Also, the right wing had another decade+ to polish the destructive rhetoric of the Gingrich Revolution. Finally, in the 1990s, the Dems came in after the country had gone through a fairly small recession; in 2008, they came in after a near-total collapse. The Repubs realized that if they didn’t come back swinging, hard, they could be out of power for a very long time.

  9. koreyel: “Archie Bunker is once again ascendant.”

    An apt description. Made me realize how much Rush Limbaugh reminds me of Archie Bunker.

  10. Clearing there is an irrational Obama derangement syndrome at work, from the wingnuts, though it is difficult to isolate, since thay hate all things liberal, but Obama is singled out not entirely because he is black, (after all Clarence Thomas could run for the GOP nomination, and with the blessing of the Tea party) but Obama´s place is secured on a GOP hate list, because of the other what policial scientists used to call reinforcing clevages. Obama is intellectual, and hasn´t paid his dues, didn´t work in sweat shop or with hedge funds, and was even raised by a single mother in Indonesia, that a US birth qualification for president was supposed to guard against.

  11. I think it’s likely he said it pretty much as it was reported.

    One thing all attorneys know is you never invite someone to sue you. “Go ahead, call my bluff and see” is like saying “Go ahead, sue me”.

    I find it much more believable that he invited Cantor NOT to call his bluff, because *everyone knows* (including Cantor) it would be catastrophic.

  12. I’ll ignore the play-by-play and wait for the result: Medicare and Social Security cuts in the name of fiscal sanity with an increase in defense spending shortly thereafter.

  13. This is silly. When somebody says, “Don’t call my bluff”, the unspoken followup is pretty much always, “Because it’s not a bluff.”

    I don’t see the issue here.

  14. I think that Carnap is right–and, though this may be the first time I’ve said this, so is Brett Bellmore. The President meant “don’t assume I’m bluffing (because I’m not).” Human conversation is more often elliptical than formal-logical.

  15. I’d always assumed it was something akin to “don’t throw me in the briar patch.” Or went like this:

    CANTOR: You’re bluffing.
    POTUS: This is not a game, it’s not about bluffing, it’s about the debt cei . . .
    CANTOR You’re bluffing.
    POTUS: No, seriously, Eric — this is not a game. The American people deserve . . .
    CANTOR: I’m smart and I want respect! I’m not like everybody says … like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!
    POTUS: Hoo-kay . . .
    CANTOR: You’re bluffing, but we’re not going to call your stupid bluff!
    POTUS: Um . . . that’s the point of bluffing. You get that, right? You don’t want your opponent to call your bluff, because you don’t have a hand that’ll win. So . . .
    CANTOR: We’re calling your bluff!
    POTUS: Okay. How? How are you calling it? By walking away from these negotiations? Because that would be calling my bluff if you think I’m bluffing.
    CANTOR: We’re not calling your bluff!
    POTUS: You still don’t know what bluffing is, do you?
    CANTOR: I’m calling . . . not calling . . . ah . . . tax cuts!
    POTUS: If you think I’m bluffing and you call my bluff, that would be you walking out of these negotiations, see?
    CANTOR: Ronald Reagan!
    POTUS: If you think I’m bluffing and . . .
    CANTOR: You’re bluffing!
    POTUS: . . . and you don’t call my bluff, then we are still talking, because you think I’ve got a hand to play. See how that works? It would be opposite if you think I’m not bluffing. You wouldn’t call my bet — you would fold. If you called my bet, you would only do it if you thought your hand was better. Is your hand better?
    CANTOR: We’re calling your bluff!
    POTUS: Okay, so you’re walking out? Is that it, Eric? Because I don’t see you walking.
    CANTOR: We’re not calling your bluff!
    POTUS: Make a decision, for the love of . . .
    CANTOR: Call!
    POTUS: Eric, let me help . . . Let me, let me help, Eric.
    CANTOR: [Rocks back and forth in chair, humming]
    POTUS: Can I help, Eric?
    CANTOR: Call!
    POTUS: No, Eric, it’s not calling my bluff if you’re not walking out. We’ve been through this. Are we all still here?
    CANTOR: [Looks around. Nods]
    POTUS: Good. So you’re not calling my bluff, are you?
    CANTOR: [shakes head]
    POTUS: Okay. We’re still here and we’re still talking. [Cantor opens mouth to speak, but POTUS raises a finger] No. No. Eric, don’t call my bluff. We’ve been through this, Eric. Don’t call my bluff.

  16. I don’t understand why you’re all so certain there will be no default. I hope you’re right, but these are the same people who impeached a president for nothing much, and they’ve shut down the fedgov before. They do not care if ordinary people suffer, if they don’t think it will hurt them politically. Now, maybe a default would hurt them politically, and they won’t do it for that reason. But remember, if voters were informed and responsible, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

  17. No doubt, Brett and Andrew are correct.

    Two comments on the perceived lack of respect for the President – I don’t believe there is a racist factor. But one is inexperience – and this has been reflected in his inadequate job performance. You guys would react the same way if Ms. Bachman becomes President and it would not necessarily be sexism, would it?. Second, respect for the office became a quaint anachronism follwing Clinton’s “intern antics” and the total lack of respect you guys showed for GWB from day one.

  18. The other thing is, there’s still the Zasloff/14th Amendment strategy. If it comes to a default, that would probably be the responsible thing to do.

  19. Right now the Republicans face a precarious position. A large segment of their coalition is seeking default. Thus Republicans have an incentive to not raise the debt ceiling no matter what. However, there is also a large group of Republicans that view default as the worst possible option. So the Republicans now face this issue: which part of the coalition gets shafted? Thus whatever deal they make or don’t will determine which part of the coalition sits home on election day.

  20. Why do we capitulate to government propaganda and call it “defense spending”? “Offense spending” or “invasion spending” would be more accurate. We were more honest when the Department of Defense was the Department of War. But then government officials read in Nineteen Eighty-Four that war is peace, and they didn’t realize that Orwell did not mean it literally.

  21. “When somebody says, ‘Don’t call my bluff’…”

    As someone who actually plays a fair amount of poker in brick and mortar card rooms, I just want to say that no one *ever* says anything even resembling this. I mean literally never: in more than a decade I have never heard anything even remotely like this, not even facetiously.

  22. NCG says: “I don’t understand why you’re all so certain there will be no default.”

    Exactly. I mean, to be intellectually honest, we post non-stop, “they’re crazy, they’re wing nuts, They don’t care, they’ll blow us all up….” and all the time they’re moving inexorably to fulfill the caricature we’ve created of them……and we should be surprised?

    Just today, I was riding in my car, scanning the channels and, there she was: Michelle Bachmann. And, if one didn’t follow politics too much, and/or got their information from Left-Leaning sources you all can imagine the image one would have had of her. Every Left blog was praying (or was that braying?) “please, please, let it be Bachmann.” “She couldn’t pick her nose without putting her eye out.” LoL, Lol, Lol, RFLMAO, you get the picture.

    But anyway, there she was, a little nasal ick, sentences somewhat bland from shop worn rehearsed repetition. But, as she continued (complete sentences even) her cadence betrayed a cool, genuine confidence, and then, like starting a bicycle in a high gear, once she was cruising, she was rockin ‘n rollin. Of course for us ( referred to as “Libtards” by her base) the context was gibberish, but you had to actually care, and listen, and cognitively dissect those words & sentences, which, blissfully for her chances, her base will never do.

    (Must learn to focus and get my point across with fewer words) Ahem, The point is, she has charisma. Its easy to understand why she’s adored by her rapidly growing legions of fans. And….AND, a couple of factoids rolled out at me; She is blowing away her competition. She’s first, or solid second in most polls for early Primary States. It feels like, to me anyway, that its not just the PoP a new entrant often gets; it feels more like an ascendency, and an accelerating ascendency at that.

    Now, Finally, my real point. She is leading the charge, with genuine, emotional, and believable zealotry, “No raising the debt ceiling”…….regardless of any moves from either party.

    And that’s my embarrassingly long winded way of saying, I agree with NCG. yes, Jonestown really happened.

  23. “A large segment of their coalition is seeking default.”

    Unadulterated BS. Just because they’re pursuing a strategy you presume will result in default, (Because you assume the President would rather violate the 14th amendment than, say, challenge in court the demand that he spend money he doesn’t have.) doesn’t mean THEY presume it will lead to default, let alone that being their goal.

    Similarly, conservatives may reason that liberal policies will result in a dependent underclass, that does not mean that Democrats are seeking a dependent underclass.

    Cough up some evidence that doesn’t involve you reasoning back from what YOU, not they, expect to happen.

    I, for one, do not assume there will not be default. I simply reason that, as default is not a necessary consequence of the present circumstances, if it happens it will be deliberate on the part of the President. And that, in as much as default would result in the US government having far less money to spend, as it could no longer borrow, a President committed to high levels of spending would not deliberately bring it about.

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