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The Blaze of Glory Fallacy

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

My colleague Michael Kinsley wrote a post today urging President Obama to give in to Republican demands and agree to a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act. In Kinsley’s telling, the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crises are entirely the fault of the GOP, and a capitulation would set a dreadful precedent. But, he argues, the president should give in all the same for the good of the country. Kinsley helpfully ghostwrites Obama’s high-minded announcement of the move: “I believe the stakes are too high to let this become a testosterone contest,” he has Obama say. “So I have sent a letter to Speaker Boehner, saying that I will agree to a year’s postponement of the Affordable Care Act, if he will agree to a rise in the debt limit that is at least big enough to spare us another episode like this for a year.”

I disagree with just about all of Mike’s argument: For one thing, an ACA delaying (which even the Republicans have stopped talking about) would imperil a law that will help large numbers of those Americans the president would supposedly be helping via his selfless surrender. For another, I’m not sure how responsible it would be to delay a debt-ceiling fight for a year, at which point the possibility of a default could possibly be bigger—and the Tea Party demands even more outrageous.

But the argument also represents an example of a sort of logic that you hear a lot whenever there’s a political standoff afoot. Call it the Blaze-of-Glory Fallacy. In Kinsley’s telling, this act of political self-abasement would redound to Obama’s political advantage as the public came to realize that the GOP’s victory sprang from an ignoble willingness to damage the country. “Just as not caring about the good of the country gives strength to the Republicans, not caring about how he looks would give strength to Obama,” he writes. “You win the game of chicken by refusing to play.” Next year’s election would then turn into a “referendum on whether people want the Constitution effectively rewritten by madmen.” In the meantime, the prospect of facing an angry electorate would dissuade Republicans from interpreting the episode as a license to keep pushing the president around.

Kinsley’s not alone in this. You also hear people making fantasy-football argument on behalf of John Boehner: In that version, it is the House Speaker who makes the stirring speech announcing that he'll stiff the Tea Party  on behalf of the greater good—even though he knows it might cost him his job.

The problem with Blaze of Glory scenarios is that they are much more likely to lead to glowing Washington-datelined newspaper columns than they are to pay off in political victories. Say Obama were to follow Kinsley’s lead and announce to the country that he was falling on his sword on behalf of the soldiers and the seniors and the sick children who his Republican adversaries have proved so willing to hurt. Would the 2014 electorate remember it that way? I doubt it. Ordinary, not-that-informed voters would recall that Obama “lost,” and maybe even that the GOP had acted terribly. But they’d also likely have some vague sense that the whole episode had shown that Obama was a weak guy, and maybe shouldn’t have even started the standoff. There’d be sharply critical right-wing spin and alienated left-wing spin and crazy Facebook rants from your angry uncle. It’s hard to imagine that one consequence of this abrupt reversal wouldn’t be that the White House had even less ability to tell its story than it does now.

And all of this assumes that the election could be successfully nationalized, as opposed to being local refernda on 435 occupants of enormously gerrymandered constituencies. (As Nate Cohn pointed out earlier this week, the Republicans managed to retain the House in 1996 despite a shutdown backlash that was even worse than this one, and despite a national presidential election.)

Meantime, this scenario is supposed to put the Republicans off the idea of further extorting the president. It’s hard to see. Even if you accept the idea that mainstream opprobrium could serve as a motivator for Tea Party types, the logic doesn’t work: Having been slammed by the president in his surrender speech, rightists would be eager to prove that they were right about the ACA and other aspects of the budget wars. The best way to do that would be to provoke even more fights. Some of which couldn't be ended in a blaze of glory.