Obama versus Cheney and Martingale

What did Madoff do wrong? Imagine you have placed a bet of $10 on red at a casino. You lose. So then you place a bet of $20 and lose again. Your third bet is $40 and you win. You lost $30 but won $40, so you are $10 up. No matter how many times you bet, you always end up $10 up when you, eventually, win. This is the Martingale system. Foolproof? Not quite. If you keep doubling, the bets will soon get very large. You could hit the casino’s limit. You could run out of money. But that only happens when there is an exceptionally long run of black numbers. What are the chances of that? The depressing and, perhaps, surprising, answer is that on a completely fair bet, such as tossing a coin, the odds of losing a cripplingly large amount of money on a long losing streak are exactly the same as winning the same amount of money in slow, steady, $10 increments. No strategy you can possibly adopt affects the 50:50 outcome. In a casino, it is worse. The existence of 0 and 00 makes a small but decisive shift in the odds in favor of the house. In the long run the house wins and you lose.

You might be wondering what the Martingale system has to do with President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney.

President Obama has picked a fight with Dick Cheney on national security. The President didn’t start the fight, but he chose to make a fight of it, when he didn’t have to. He could simply have ignored Cheney’s criticisms of his anti-terrorism policy. The decision to hit back, and do so very specifically was a tactical and electoral decision.
This is not, I hasten to add, a suggestion that the President chose his policy for electoral reasons. Common Sense takes him at his word that he thinks his policies will make America safer. Let us also take Dick Cheney at his word. Both men sincerely believe they are advocating sensible policies for American security. They simply disagree.

But the decision by the President to expressly debate the former Vice-President was all about politics and nothing to do with security. That’s fine. The Presidency is a political role. The President should make his case to the American people, and to the people of the world. This column will not argue against that in the least. What I am querying is whether it was a wise political call by the President.

On the face of it, there is much to recommend the tactic. Barack Obama is very popular. Dick Cheney is very unpopular. By debating with Cheney and not, say, with John McCain, he is drawing a comparison between Democrats and Republicans which will lead to most people favoring the Democrats. Every time he contrasts himself with Dick Cheney, he will make small, steady, gains in the polls. It is just like the Martingale system.

But, just like the Martingale, there is the risk of cataclysmic disaster. The public is being constantly reminded that Barack Obama has changed the policy on terrorism prevention. The changes have been small, but a protracted debate makes it appear otherwise. If there is a major terrorist attack during the Obama presidency and thousands are killed, people will remember that the President changed the policy. And it didn’t work. And they will blame him.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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