The debt ceiling negotiations have become a tedious game of dorm room poker. Barack Obama is the dealer, and the deck is stacked in his favor. He’s enjoying the game. Even so, he’s not as good as he thinks he is: Witness his comment last week to House Republican leader Eric Cantor, “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” which suggests the president doesn’t know it’s a bad idea to tell your opponent you’re bluffing. Still, Obama has the advantage over the Republican congressional leadership, who are playing weak hands .  .  . weakly. Meanwhile, the GOP rank and file and conservatives around the country are exasperated, at once disliking the whole game and annoyed that they’ve only been allowed to participate at the last moment.

So, when all the collegiate Sturm und Drang is over, Obama may come out slightly ahead.

But if so, only slightly​—​and maybe not at all. Because it looks as if we’ll end up with no tax hikes, some spending cuts, and a situation in which Obama and the Democrats are basically responsible for our assuming ever more unsustainable debt, while most Republicans oppose the final deal. Meanwhile, we have to endure a painful few weeks here in Washington, with GOP congressional aides cringing as their bosses get outplayed in some low pot hands, and the liberal media whooping and hollering as Obama pockets a few penny antes.

But how much damage is really being done? Public opinion polls in the real America have so far shown no movement in Obama’s direction or towards the Democrats. Gallup reported last week that the generic GOP candidate had opened up an 8-point lead over President Obama, the largest yet, when voters were asked their 2012 intentions. Rasmussen reported a more or less steady 5-point lead for Republicans in the generic congressional ballot. So fretful conservative commentators who are gnashing their teeth over every hand should probably calm down. It’s just not worth getting too worked up over all the misleading arguments being tossed around. And there’s no reason to give credibility to the media’s attempt to make this a decisive moment in the battle for America’s future.

It’s not. The real high-stakes poker game is in 2012. That’s when the voters will call Obama’s bluff.

Because it’s hard​—​even for Barack Obama​—​to bluff reality. The whole structure Obama is defending​—​liberal big government, a bloated public sector, the entitlement state​—​is a bluff. It can’t deliver on its promises. It produces slow growth, debilitating regulation, and a dissatisfied citizenry. It can’t work, and it doesn’t work, and when the college game is adjourned, the players have to go out into the real world of real consequences.

In that world, conservatives will have every chance to make the case that liberal policies fail and conservative policies work. It’s not a difficult case to make. They get to defend Carter’s economy and Obama’s, and Greece’s welfare state and California’s. Conservatives get to appeal to the records of Reagan and Thatcher, and the economic performance of conservatively governed Canada and Texas. Conservatives should do fine in this real world debate.

This​—​a common sense appeal to experience, to the tests of reality​—​may well be enough for a Republican to prevail in 2012. But a bold and fresh agenda in addition wouldn’t hurt. And such an agenda will be essential for the task of governing in 2013. The challenges that will face President Bachmann or Romney or Pawlenty or Perry or Ryan or Christie or Rubio in 2013 will be very different and in some ways more fundamental from those of the past. The reform agenda that will be required will have to be bold and comprehensive. The work of developing such an agenda is what’s truly important, and in many respects it’s well underway.

Republicans and conservatives have to play their hands as they’re dealt. But they should keep in mind that this year’s tussles are mere warm-ups for the serious poker games of 2012 and 2013. In those games, no one will be bluffing, and conservatives need to be ready to go all in, and to win.

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