Posted by: Ray Brescia | April 2, 2020

Mitch McConnell, Master of the “Infinite Game,” Loses a Round

Mitch McConnell’s autobiography is entitled The Long Game.  In it, he states that two of his core skills are patience and perseverance.  In reality, time and time again, the Senate Majority Leader shows that he is neither playing the short nor the long game. Rather, he is playing what is known as an “Infinite Game.”  But the passage of the most recent stimulus bill shows that, although he often wins round of the game, his track record is not perfect, no matter what game is being played.  What is more, his constituents now have the power to stop whichever game McConnell is playing.

In 1986, James Carse, former director of religious studies at New York University, wrote Finite and Infinite Games.  He posited that these are the two types of games that exist in the world, and games can include anything from sports matches to world wars.  For Carse, a finite game “is played for the purposes of winning,” while an infinite game has the purpose of “continuing the play.”  Indeed, the only purpose of the infinite game is to keep the game going.

McConnell has shown over the years that his goal is typically just to keep playing.  When Justice Antonin Scalia died in the early part of President Obama’s last year in office, McConnell had a choice based on three potential outcomes that would flow from that choice.  First, if McConnell gave in, and allowed confirmation hearings and a vote on President Obama’s nominee, the relatively moderate and exceedingly qualified Merrick Garland, he would have almost certainly been confirmed.  The confirmation of Garland would have likely tipped the balance on the Supreme Court regarding one of McConnell’s key “infinite game” game pieces: unlimited corporate campaign funding that would support the maintenance of Republican control of the Senate.  A Supreme Court with Garland on it might have meant decisions like Citizens United would have been overturned, and the Republican money train from corporate big wigs would have gone off the rails.

The second option was to delay until after the election, even if Hillary Clinton were to win.  At that point, the Senate could continue to filibuster any appointment she might make, saying something like “well, the Supreme Court has functioned just fine with eight justices, no need to rush now.  We will wait until President Clinton appoints someone we can live with.” Never give in.  Keep the game going.

The third option, perhaps the most unlikely, was that if the Senate held out long enough, Trump would win the election and then that would ensure an appointment that would leave campaign finance rules intact.  Never give in.  Never lose a round. Keep the game going.

McConnell’s actions during the Garland fight and after reveal another feature of infinite games according to Carse: the rules of an infinite game change during the course of play.  Indeed, when asked if a new vacancy were to arise on the Supreme Court during Trump’s last year of his first term, McConnell, bemused, said simply, “oh, we’d fill it.”  And that is another element in McConnell’s infinite game strategy: if you keep the play of the game going without giving in, there’s always a chance you can change the rules to affect how the game will unfold.

We saw these phenomena in the fight over the Senate impeachment trial.  There was extreme pressure early on for witnesses in the trial.  McConnell fought to delay a vote on the rules of the trial as it related to witnesses: he advocated for a start of the trial with evidence first, and a second vote on witnesses later.  Keep the game going.  Never give in.  He won the first round on the rules for the trial, which included the delayed vote on witnesses.  Then, when it came time to actually vote on the witnesses, he won that vote as well, by the slimmest of margins.

Bowing to pressure early to allow witnesses would have meant the Senate trial would have been even more damning for the President, particularly if John Bolton were to testify.  By delaying the vote on witnesses, he assured, for the time being, any such decision on witnesses would wait.  Perhaps the pressure for witnesses would dissipate.  Moreover, McConnell could apply counter pressure on wavering senators to hold firm against their damning testimony.  By delaying the vote on witnesses, and keeping the game going, McConnell bought time, and he, and the President, ultimately prevailed.

Over the last week, McConnell tried another infinite game move. In the most recent bailout bill to help the economy in the throes of the Coronavirus crisis, McConnell tried to work with the Trump Administration to insert a $500 billion slush fund to be utilized at the Treasury Secretary’s discretion with no oversight at first.  The Administration would not have to report on how the money was spent for six months: in other words, no disclosure until after the November presidential election.  Keep the game going, keep playing, wait things out, win each round.

With public pressure, the Democrats were able to create an oversight system for the fund.  They won this round in McConnell’s infinite game.  But as we see, as the nation faces one of its greatest crises in its history, McConnell is still playing the infinite game.

There is an inflection point in November in McConnell’s infinite game.  Not only will President Trump face the voters, but so will McConnell.  Whether his constituents will put an end to his infinite game once and for all remains to be seen.


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