Playing For All The Marbles

We can't afford to play for funsies when the GOP is playing for keepsies.

A long time ago, before there were Pokemon, before there were Beyblades, even before anybody thought to gather Magic cards, the things that children collected to duel with were called marbles. Little round beads of glass or agate or clay or metal with names like "aggie" and "steely" and "catseye". There were many games you could play with marbles, but the main one — which varied in the specifics some with time and distance — was mainly just called marbles

Marbles is a bit like shooting pool down in the dirt. A bit like a cross between sharp-shooting, bowling, and sumo wrestling.

Playing marbles may have gone out of fashion, but it left behind a couple of idioms on its way out the door. 

Serious marble players would play for keeps, meaning whichever of their opponents' marbles they vanquished on the field of honor would become their property. This introduced an added element of strategy to the game, as marbles with unusually desirable properties might be deemed too good to risk using and losing.

From this expression we get another: playing for all the marbles.

Now, since most games don't have a mechanism where you can take an opponent's team away from them piecemeal, this one has sort of lost its impact. Sportscasters might say that a team is "playing for all the marbles" when one game in a series or one play on the field is about to decide victory or loss, but of course it always comes down to "all the marbles" in any game in which it is perforce impossible to win "some of the marbles". A football game that ends 42-47 doesn’t end with the losing team taking home 42 points' worth of prizes, whereas it's very possible for a game of marbles to result in a mixed bag when opponents are playing for keeps.

If you want to understand the behavior of the modern day GOP — and I don't mean this in reference to any one particular thing but to everything — then you have to internalize the meanings of these phrases. They aren't playing three dimensional chess. Neither are their actions the result of highly damaging Russian kompromat on each and every one of them.

What we're seeing is the results of a long-standing GOP strategy that was only accelerated by Donald Trump, not created by him.

The GOP isn't playing chess. They're playing marbles, they are playing for keeps, and they're not going to stop until they have all the marbles.

To the GOP, the stakes in any contest isn't ever just about who wins this round. Merrick Garland was their pick for Supreme Court, proposed by Orrin Hatch to President Obama as someone they could agree to confirm. Even in doing that, the Senate GOP was asserting a fairly unprecedented amount of influence over the most consequential of presidential appointments. Democrats have opposed GOP SCOTUS appointments before... Robert Bork comes to mind, but there were specific concerns about his record. The Democrats did not categorically reject the authority of Ronald Reagan to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court.

The specter of Clarence Thomas is invoked by the GOP as though the same thing happened. They said that Thomas was "borked", a verb the GOP uses to describe the supposed widespread, regular practice of Democratic hit jobs on their appointees. Thomas was borked, and Kavanaugh of course was borked, following the Clarence Thomas plan of trumping up allegations of sexual misconduct.

But all of this misses the fact that Clarence Thomas was seated, and he was seated by a majority Democratic Senate that ultimately deferred to the idea that the president has the right to fill vacancies and that the majority party must expect to lose some battles even as they win some.

And neither the allegations against Kavanaugh nor Thomas were spurious, and neither were the issues with Bork's record conjured out of thin air. But in inventing the myth of the "borking", Republicans position themselves to shoot down any criticism of their future appointees. Every time they nominate someone with serious problems to a high office, they get a new chance to accuse their opponents of "borking", which just further establishes the myth: the Democrats won't give them a fair shake! The Democrats don't want them to have their turn! The Democrats aren't playing fair! The Democrats aren't following the rules.

I mean, just look at this sequence of events;

1. President Obama has a Supreme Court vacancy to fill.

2. Orrin Hatch warns him against appointing an "extremist" and suggests Merrick Garland as a compromise.

3. President Obama nominates Garland.

4. The Senate GOP refuses to give him a hearing, holding open the seat for not just the next president but the next Republican president. (John McCain bragged that they would not let a President Clinton fill it, either, if she won.)

5. Donald Trump fills that stolen seat with very little incident or outcry and no procedural obstacles or "borking" from the Democrats; Senate Democrats appear to decide that airing on the side of normalcy and civility is the less damaging path to the institution.

6. Another Supreme Court seat opens and Donald Trump nominates a drunken rapist to it.

There is sufficient evidence in this sequence of events alone that Democrats are not playing to win by hook or by crook; President Obama took no extraordinary steps to fill the seat he was due to fill and the Senate Democrats let Neil Gorsuch fill it without incident. The myth the Republicans tell that their tactics are a response to Democratic tactics fails on its face.

But the Republicans understand that they are playing a game where the pieces you win are also the playing pieces; where any given shot you take will result in a gain or loss of your power. Letting President Obama fill the seat even with their own pick would have been letting a marble stay in the circle when they had a chance to scoop it up. Conceding the Kavanaugh nomination in favor of any other pick from the laundry list of pre-vetted judges Donald held would have risked letting their opponents collect a marble.

The GOP is seeking a permanent state of single-party rule. For now that doesn't mean they're the only party on the ballot or even the only party in office; it means that they're the only party that rules, that is allowed to rule. When Mitch McConnell holds the Senate, he rules it with an iron fist. If he finds himself out of the majority, watch how quickly he will decry the new Democratic majority leader as a tyrant for the simplest exercises of normal procedural power.... and watch how much the Democrats bend towards the middle in a fruitless attempt to deflect this.

When you're playing for all the marbles, you can't let anything go. Any newspaper or station that is not 100% in your pocket must be decried as being biased against you. Any social media platform that does not absolutely bow to your side must be called out for censorship for the most milquetoast of enforcement actions. Any exercise of power by the other side must be decried as overreach while any excess by yours is ignored, denied, celebrated, or deemed necessary.

This is why they're sticking with Trump, not the only reason, but the reason at the top and the bottom of it, like bread on a sandwich with a particularly unpalatable filling: because if they allowed that there was anything a Republican president could do that merited consequences, they'd be leaving a marble in the hands of their opponents, and that's one marble to many. 

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