“The Hustler,” the 1913 US Open, and the Debt Ceiling Negotiations
There are powerful parallels in the 1961 movie “The Hustler,” the 1913 US Open, and the current debt ceiling negotiation.
Let me explain.
In each case, there is a real question of which competitor is going to succumb to the pressure and break.
In “The Hustler,” Paul Newman plays Eddie Felton, a young pool shark who takes on the greatest pool player of his time, Minnesota Fats (played brilliantly by Jackie Gleason). A great deal of money is involved, with the champion being backed by several big money guys. They are equally good pool players, but Gleason’s character is confident, and Newman’s character is insecure. Finally, as the night wears on, the Newman character breaks under the pressure and loses – even though in the early stages he had played as well as or better than Gleason. The movie is then a portrait of a man who collapses and fails and must rebuild himself with the help of sympathetic people. At the end, he comes back to take on the champion again. The key moment in the movie is when Gleason says, “I quit Eddie, I can’t beat you.”
Francis Ouimet’s great achievement is remarkably told in Mark Frost’s book “The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth Of Modern Golf.” While it is nonfiction, it is such a compelling story it became an entertaining movie of the same name.
In 1913, the two best golfers in the world, both British, came to the United States to prove the superiority of British golf over American golf. Harry Vardon was the first modern professional golfer and considered virtually unbeatable. They decided to prove their dominance at the US Open at the Brookline Country Club in Massachusetts.
In an amazing, in some ways quintessentially American, story a 20–year-old former caddie from the club emerged as a national hero. In an 18–hole playoff, he beat the greatest golfers in the world. He won $300. More importantly, he popularized golf in America and stunned the British golfing elite.
The key moment in the match came when Vardon turned to his partner and said Ouimet is not going to break psychologically. He is as good as us, and we will not be able to beat him. Like Minnesota Fats in pool, Vardon had always relied on the pressure beating his opponents. He was a great golfer, but he was also a great student of human psychology.
I thought of these two stories as I was watching Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a powerful discussion with the White House Press Corps after Tuesday’s debt ceiling meeting with President Joe Biden and the other legislative leaders. I was struck by how the two sides are approaching debt ceiling negotiations.
Speaker McCarthy pointed out that he has been advocating serious negotiations for the last 97 days. President Biden has been avoiding serious negotiations and claiming he wanted a debt ceiling increase with no amendments.
When the House Republicans passed the “Limit, Save, Grow Act” on April 26, they shocked the Washington establishment – and especially President Biden. The Democrats had been counting on the narrow Republican majority in the House to make it impossible for Republicans to pass a debt ceiling bill without Democrats helping. Since they would only help pass a bill with no amendments, they thought they would get a so-called clean debt ceiling increase (see my newsletter on why a clean debt ceiling bill is actually the dirtiest debt deal).
Up until April 26, Democrats believed they held all the cards. They thought the House Republicans would fail. The elite media would blame the Republicans. In a panic the Republicans would cave and agree to whatever President Biden wanted to do on the debt ceiling.
So, the passage of the Limit, Save, Grow Act, changed history. Suddenly, the only bill that could lift the debt ceiling and avoid a default had been passed by the House Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had been busy attacking the Republicans, but suddenly it was clear that Schumer could not pass anything – and could bring nothing to the negotiating table. Similarly, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries had just been defeated and could bring nothing to the table.
In a remarkable act of statesmanship, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a veteran of a number of debt ceiling showdowns, publicly stepped back and said Speaker McCarthy had earned the right to take the lead on the debt ceiling. McConnell then joined 42 of his colleagues in signing a letter Senator Mike Lee originated which served notice that on the debt ceiling Schumer could not get the 60 votes needed for cloture in the Senate.
Now, the Biden administration and the congressional Democrats are faced with a new and unexpected reality. A united congressional GOP was behind Speaker McCarthy in demanding spending cuts and reforms as part of any debt ceiling increase.
Having wasted 14 weeks, the Biden administration is finally facing reality and starting to negotiate.
Having watched Speaker McCarthy live through a 15–vote marathon to become Speaker, I am pretty sure who is going to stay cheerful and confident – and who is going to realize they just can’t win.