Health Reform: A Prisoner’s Dilemma

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Just about anyone who has ever taken an economics course has probably heard of a game theory exercise known as “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” It’s worth thinking about as we look at the agonizing decision that wavering House members are about to make on health care reform–which may well be the most treacherous vote that many of them will have to make in their political careers.

Here’s how it works:

Two bank robbers are arrested, put in isolation cells and given the choice of confessing and remaining silent. If both remain silent, they both go free. get the lightest possible sentences.* If one confesses, and the other is silent, the first one goes free, while the evidence is used to convict the second with a maximum sentence. And if they both confess, they both get lighter moderate sentences with early parole.*

The parallel here is that, in purely political terms, the easiest choice for endangered Democrats in swing districts is to vote against the bill–but only if it passes. That’s because they need two things to happen to get re-elected this fall. They need to win independent voters (who in most recent polls, such as this one by Ipsos/McClatchy, are deeply divided on the bill). But they also need the Democratic base in their districts to be energized enough to turn out in force–something that is far less likely to happen if Barack Obama’s signature domestic initiative goes down in flames.

As such, their situation may be not unlike what Marjorie Margolies faced with her vote for the Clinton economic plan in 1993: “I wasn’t going to do it at 217. I wasn’t going to do it at 219. Only at 218, or I was voting against it,”

This kind of calculation is instructive, because it tells you how truly difficult the next few weeks are going to be for Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team. Every endangered member will be trying to figure out not only his or her own vote, but also which way colleagues are likely to go. This one is going to be so difficult to predict–right up until the very last minute.

*H/T commenter Jonathan Evans, who pointed out that in my initial version of this, I simplified it a bit too far.

But the point remains: Each member will be making a calculation of his or her own vote in combination with everyone else’s vote.