Sunday, April 3, 2016

Rolling the Red Dice

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Careful, Bernie. Winning these battles could mean everyone loses the war.

Risk is my favorite board game.

Just in case you've never been exposed to The Game of World Conquest, this is what it looks like:
Each player has a box of plastic armies. At the beginning of the game, all players distribute their armies across the board, claiming countries in as strategically advantageous an arrangement as their opponents will permit. Once every country is occupied, players take turns invading each other's neighboring territories, trying to consolidate continents, building up frontier defenses, and eventually eliminating each other from the game. The winner is the player who controls the entire world at the end. Success comes through a combination of strategy and chance: the attacking player rolls three red dice against the defending player's two white dice. The attacker's two highest dice are matched against the defender's roll, with the higher die winning--though ties always go to the defender. Each losing die costs the roller one army. There's also a chance element in the card a player draws at the end of any turn resulting in at least one successful invasion: match three cards (or get a set of all three) and the player earns additional armies to add to the next turn. Owning an entire continent grants the player bonus armies, as does controlling twelve or more countries.

The strategy comes in knowing when to attack conservatively, and when to go all out. Because of the chance element, a strong aggressor can sometimes be weakened by bad rolls to the point of losing on the next turn: one has to know when to stop. One also has to take the occasional risk of going for an entire continent, or choosing to wipe out a player while leaving one's frontiers weaker, knowing that, if successful on this front, one can claim that player's cards and an additional match or set. Over the course of the game, alliances frequently develop as two or more players turn against an aggressor that neither can defeat alone. Once that player is eliminated, though, the allies always turn on each other. In the end, there can be only one winner.

This blend of skill, chance, and ruthlessness is what makes Risk such an addictive game to a politics wonk like me: it's a perfect metaphor for a Presidential election.

Consider the Republican race: an enormous field of candidates battles for territory. Nothing succeeds like success: candidates have to win debates, caucuses, and primaries to continue building up their forces of money, press and, most important, delegates. Some roll the red dice too aggressively, pouring their resources into a single campaign only to find the gods of chance are against them. Others campaign conservatively, neglecting states they are unlikely to win, concentrating on those where wins can both enhance their own positions and deal mortal blows to their opponents. Sometimes the conservative strategy pays off; at other times, a more aggressive candidate's risky maneuvers force the careful candidate out of the race. That's how the Republican field has been winnowed down to just two real contenders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Of the two, Cruz has played the more strategic game, choosing his battles with care, while Trump has simply blasted away on all sides, his beginner's luck taking him to an early lead. That lead is withering, though, and it remains to be seen who will be the last candidate standing following the GOP convention.

Now look at the Democratic side of the ballot. There have really just been two competitors from the beginning. Hillary Clinton has been the strong, strategic player, organized at the most minute level, and has built up a sizable lead; while Bernie Sanders has been picking off contests where he can, accumulating an impressive list of small wins, adding to his total, gaining on Clinton. His followers are passionate, idealistic, dedicated, and quick to embrace any headline that offers them hope--or to broadcast any that casts aspersions on the Clinton campaign. My Facebook feed is filled with links to these stories, which should tell you something about the kind of people I prefer to associate with.

The problem for the Sanders is campaign is numerical: the Presidential nominee is the candidate who, by the time of the convention, has a majority of the delegates. This isn't about control of the Senate (though that does hang in the balance this November): winning many small states does not translate into a national victory. Clinton has won many more votes thus far, and will almost certainly have a real majority of pledged delegates by July.

I say "almost" because, as in Risk, there are still elements beyond any contender's control; and also because one never knows when an unsporting blow, or an unanticipated stumble, will mete out far more damage than it ought.

Consider the demise of Marco Rubio's campaign: during a debate, Chris Christie called him on his tendency to rattle off overly rehearsed debate points. Caught off guard, Rubio fell into the rut of doing exactly that. Christie seized on the error, and Rubio never recovered--but neither did Christie. There's no telling whether his aggressive approach to that debate turned voters off, but he didn't last long after it.

The winnowing of both fields (there were actually a couple of other Democrats early on, in case you've forgotten) has the game board almost prepared for the final inning of the game. Conflicts have expanded from border skirmishes to regional contests. By the end of the summer, there will be just two powers left battling for ultimate control. One of them will be either a proto-Fascist blunderbuss who is so hated by everyone outside his circle of rabid followers, or a canny strategist who knows exactly when to roll, when to pull back, and when to go all out. The other is probably going to be Hillary Clinton--unless she and Bernie Sanders destroy each other.

And that could happen. The initial politeness of their contest has grown testy. Sanders and his supporters are making Clinton out to be a Wall Street insider, a wholly owned subsidiary of the financial sector, no better than her fascistic opponents. Clinton, on the other hand, has lashed out reactively at Sanders. Her allies may have engaged in lawyerly tricks to minimize his presence in some contests.

There is danger in this struggle: if Sanders' hyperbole is too convincing, it could cost Clinton some battleground states in November. Some of Sanders' supporters genuinely believe there is no difference between her and Trump or Cruz, and will stay away from the polls as a result. In a close race, that could make all the difference.

The last time the Left convinced itself there was no difference between the major party candidates, and either stayed away from the polls or voted for Ralph Nader, we got eight years of tax cuts and waterboarding, and created a Middle Eastern black hole that is still consuming innocent lives by the thousand--not to mention decades of delay in addressing climate change. We need another Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and, at the very least, a stronger Democratic presence in the House.

There is one other way that a Risk game can end: when a losing player who is taking the game too personally flips the board over. When that happens, everyone loses. If the Sanders campaign succeeds in destroying Clinton with invective, or if disgruntled Sanders supporters stay away from battleground state elections in large numbers, the game will end horribly.

So please, Bernie Burners: play nice. Ditch the misogyny and the conspiracy theories. And if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, hold your nose and vote for her. The alternative--whichever fascist he is--really is far worse for you, me, and the rest of the world.

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