Any decent poker player knows that a bluff is only good if you can sell it.



Sure, you can take the kitty with a pair of threes if you have nerves of steel and a poker face like Lyndon Johnson. But twitch an eyelash, or twiddle a pinky, and you’ll be cleaned out faster than an old man drinking prune juice.



Unfortunately this is a principle that many in the D.C. crowd have yet to grasp.



As President Obama, his Democrats, and the Republicans gathered to hash out a deal on the debt ceiling, the bluffs have been fairly filling the air. One after another, politicians have suggested that they are willing to bet everything on this issue — public opinion, the fragile economy, even the next election — before compromising on certain principles. And yet, most have simultaneously said that they truly think a default on the national debt could be catastrophic, and they are committed to heading it off.



What has emerged is a peculiar circumstance in which each side is steadily upping the ante, while having already admitted the fundamental weakness of their hands and that the cops are coming to break up the game any moment anyway. So why are they doing it?



First, because each side believes if it holds on long enough, the other side will fold before the paddy wagon arrives. Even with the clock ticking down to default, Republicans think they can convince you that the Democrats are out-of-control spending ninnies who will tax you from here to Tulsa. Democrats think they can convince you that Republicans are heartless little Monopoly men who want to replace grandma’s Social Security check with a Cup-A-Soup and a rabbit’s foot. If either side can close the deal with voters, it will be a big win heading into the 2012 election cycle.



But there is a second reason the bluffers are so furiously putting it all on the line. They’ve already bet way too much. Like a guy who has put the rent money onto the table, they have reached a point where they don’t feel like they can back down.



Because not only would that cost the losing party a lot of chips, it could also make it very hard for them to pull off of any kind of bluff in D.C. for a long time.



– CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360°”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”

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