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Michael Sigman Headshot

Block That Metaphor, Twice

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As the 2012 presidential campaign wears on, it's time for political pundits and headline writers to stop doubling down on "double down."

"Double down" -- broadly understood to connote any risk-taking behavior -- is the blackjack term for a player who doubles his current bet in return for which he gets one more card; it also describes a poker player who makes a brazen bet. (For our purposes, we are eschewing the risky, artery-clogging sandwich in which breaded chicken takes the place of bread.)

President Obama is constantly doubling down, whether the subject be education, taxing the rich or windmills. (He's even been known to go "all in.")

But since there are no primaries on the Democratic side, the GOP dominates this season's double downing. In just the past week, Mitt Romney has doubled down on the economy, Santorum's spending, the Santorum/Arlen Spector kerfuffle and his Cadillac klunker, while Santorum has done the same on education, religion and regurgitation. Shrieking right-wing Romney-endorsing pundit Ann Coulter, alarmed at the vulnerability of the Mittsterizer, doubled down on her "insistence on Romney." (She did not, however, double down on her earlier doubled down insistence that Romney would lose.)

The dozens of citations regarding other GOP players include: "Ron Paul Doubles Down On Calling Newt Gingrich A 'Chickenhawk'"; "Rick Perry Doubles Down on 'Vulture Capitalist' Criticism of Mitt Romney"; "Michele Bachmann Doubles Down on 'Perrycare'"; "Pawlenty Doubles Down On Economic Illiteracy"; "Trump Doubles Down on Birther Claim"; "Palin Doubles Down on 'Death Panels"; "Herman Cain Doubles Down That Being Gay Is A Choice" "Mitch Daniels Doubles Down on Social Issues 'Truce'" -- and so on, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, times two.

Mathematicians illustrate the power of what one might call doubling down with one variation or another on a story that goes like this: You begin with a single grain of wheat on one square of a chessboard. If you double the number of grains at each of the 64 squares on the board -- one, then two, then four, then eight, etc. -- you'd have more than enough wheat to cover the Earth several inches deep.

It's worth pondering why a gambling cliche has become the metaphor of choice for the campaign commentariat. Maybe it's linked to the surging popularity of poker online and on TV, where ESPN treats it as a sport, perhaps only because, like baseball, golf and billiards, men are usually involved and there's little movement. But that begs the question: Why has poker become so popular?

Perhaps it's the frisson of noirish criminal behavior; media types like that (the frisson) because it makes us feel more dangerous than we are. When we say "doubled down," we feel like characters out of pulp-fiction.

There's also, it seems, a Zeitgeist-y parallel between games of chance and the casino Wall Streeters have set up to handle ordinary people's money. In both cases, there is a measure of skill involved. And in both cases, the house always wins. (If you use your skill in counting cards to gain an edge in blackjack, the casino will kick you out.) We fools bring the money, Vegas and the Street bring the gasoline and the match.

As primary season lurches to a close, look for a shift from poker to a real sport: basketball. "Pivot" is already staking its claim as the annoying shorthand for the Republican nominee's inevitable move "to the center."

Full disclosure: I too have succumbed to the pokering of American English. Commenting on Frank Sinatra's refusal to record Randy Newman's song "Lonely at the Top," I wrote, in these very pages, "Newman, doubling down on the irony, recorded it himself."