You may recall that, a year ago, I suggested that if Donald J. Trump was elected president, “we will undoubtedly replace Getting to Yeswith Art of the Deal” in our negotiation courses.
After his spectacular failure to get to enough “yeses” to enact the Republican health care bill, I’m starting to have second thoughts.
I didn’t actually read Mr. Trump’s tome, which seemed like too much of a burden, and I relied instead on internet summaries. My methodology was validated by an article by Washington Postcorrespondent Philip Bump, who used this same approach in analyzing how well President Trump followed the prescriptions in his book when negotiating the health care bill, as discussed below.
In the wake of the president’s failure to persuade enough members of Congress to support his bill, there have been a number of post-mortems focusing on his negotiation tactics.
Test for President with Image as a Master Negotiator
Washington Post reporter Callum Borchers wrote, “Regard for Trump’s skill as a negotiator has been central to his media image since before he entered politics.”
“Friday’s scheduled vote on a Republican health-care overhaul represented the first major test of Trump’s ability to cut deals as president. He failed the test. A last-minute decision to scuttle the vote spared Trump the indignity of a formal defeat, but the move amounted to a loss via forfeit. Briefing the media earlier Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer reminded reporters that the president had personally lobbied 120 lawmakers in meetings or phone calls. Trump had “left everything on the field,” Spicer said. “Everything” proved insufficient.”
Similarly, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “Trump ran as the only person who could solve the major problems facing the country. Trump was the one who billed himself as the dealmaker extraordinaire, the guy who had faced down people in corporate boardrooms all over the country and all over the world — and won. … Dealmaker Donald played chicken. But he lost his nerve at the last minute.”
Legislating is Different Than Negotiating Real Estate Deals
Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty noted, “President Trump has gotten a hard lesson from his first legislative debacle: Leadership takes more than being able to close a deal. Again and again, Trump’s team referred to the president as “the closer,” bringing the negotiating skills of the business world to governing. At the 11th hour, he delivered a dramatic ultimatum straight from his best-selling “Art of the Deal”: If the House did not approve the bill, he would walk away and Obamacare would stand.”
“In retrospect, it is now apparent that more difficult and painstaking work should have been done on the front end, allowing input from various Republican factions into the bill’s design and for aggressively making the case for it to a wary public.”
The “Closer” Could Not Close the Deal
Washington Post reporters Robert Costa, Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker provided a detailed analysis, based in part on a phone call from the president to Mr. Costa. “For Trump, it was never supposed to be this hard. As a real estate mogul on the rise, he wrote “The Art of the Deal,” and as a political candidate, he boasted that nobody could make deals as beautifully as he could. Replacing Obamacare, a Republican bogeyman since the day it was enacted seven years ago, was Trump’s first chance to prove that he had the magic touch that he claimed eluded Washington.”
“Trump’s advisers thought he could nudge the bill over the finish line by sheer force of personality. “He is the closer,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer boasted on Wednesday. But by Friday, it was clear that the closer could not close.”
“He cajoled and charmed uncertain members, offering flattery and attention to some and admonishment and the vague threat of political retribution to others. He invited members to the White House for bowling sessions, gave others rides on Air Force One (complete with lasagna) and grinned for pictures in the Oval Office, where he reminded lawmakers of his margins of victory in their districts.”
“This account of Trump’s work on the health-care bill — based on interviews with roughly three dozen White House aides and advisers, members of Congress, and other key figures in the debate — revealed a president in a constant state of negotiation. He remarked to friends and aides that it did not feel much different from his real estate transactions.”
“Trump fashioned himself as the master dealmaker. His senior aides described him as “an extremely good listener” and said his negotiating skills were the product of “total natural talent,” saying he could turn up the heat or the charm as needed.”
Bold and Risky Move to Issue Ultimatum
“As the talks stalled later that night, Trump’s exasperation with the hemming and hawing of members escalated and he delivered an ultimatum: Go ahead with the vote no matter what on Friday, he said, all but daring fellow Republicans to vote against his first significant bill.”
“The president was finished negotiating, and his thinking was straight from “The Art of the Deal”: If the White House continued to postpone the vote, the holdouts would gain leverage and learn the dangerous lesson that they could challenge Trump and win. Lawmakers wanting to oppose the president would have to do so publicly, in a vote, and face the consequences.”
New York Times reporters Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman wrote that the president “has one speed when he decides to shift to sales mode, aides said, and he had trouble modulating his tone, issuing cringe-inducing superlatives like “wonderful” to describe an ungainly bill his aides described as anything but.”
Focus on Politics, Not Policy
Politico reporter Tim Alberta wrote, “Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.””
“Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little shit” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.”
“The president had been working on many of them individually in recent days, typically with what members described as “colorful” phone calls, littered with exaggerations and foul language and hilariously off-topic anecdotes.”
CNN reporters Phil Mattingly, Sara Murray, Stephen Collinson and Jeff Zeleny wrote, “The President’s lobbying efforts sounded impressive: Face-to-face meetings with more than 120 members of Congress. For good measure, private phone calls with many of them.”
“But in many of those meetings, details were an afterthought, according to multiple people present. “Staff was for details, Trump was for closing,” said one senior congressional aide. When it came to details, Trump “didn’t know, didn’t care, or both.” He didn’t answer their specific questions about the bill, according to three members of Congress who attended the meetings. He didn’t offer any arguments for why they should support the legislation other than to give him his first legislative victory.”
“Trump repeatedly focused instead on the politics of the broader situation, the people said. In the Oval Office, he quizzed the Republicans about the margin of victory in their districts last fall. His victory, not theirs. “He did very little to say why we should vote ‘yes,'” one Republican member of Congress said, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. “He kept talking about his damn election.””
Limited Commitment and Readiness to Walk Away
Politico reporters Shane Goldmacher and Josh Dawsey wrote, “It was straight out of Trump’s The Art of the Deal playbook, where he wrote simultaneously about boldness and maintaining a willingness to retreat. “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach,” Trump wrote. “For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air because most deals fall out.”
“That might work in the real estate business, where there’s always another property to develop, or another contractor to hire. But it backfired in Congress, where time and political capital are not unlimited, where the last deal impacts the next and where there is no alternative set of lawmakers to whom Trump can pitch his next demands.”
Rookie Error and/or Impossible Task?
The aforementioned Mr. Bump systematically reviewed how well President Trump followed his own negotiation advice in an article entitled, “Trump’s Health-Care Dealmaking Failed to Adhere to His Book’s 11 Core Principles.”
So, perhaps Trump’s theory may be valid but he just failed to execute it properly. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it a “rookie error.” After the president pulled the plug on the negotiation, the 70 year-old master negotiator acknowledged that he had learned from this experience.
But perhaps all this critique is too tough. A former aide to Senator Marco Rubio talked about the opposition by the Republican Freedom Caucus. “Their opposition to Trump’s health care bill should surprise nobody who’s paid attention for the last six years. Even the world’s best negotiator can’t make a deal with someone who never compromises.”
Learning and Improving. Next Test: Tax Reform
President Trump will have many more opportunities to try his hand at negotiating with Congress. Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz wrote, “The president has an opportunity to adjust, adapt and ultimately to recover, if he’s prepared to undertake a sober analysis of what happened on health care, and more broadly, how to operate as president. Ultimately, the presidency is about more than signing executive orders, holding listening sessions in the White House or taking the show on the road for campaign-style rallies before boisterous crowds of devoted supporters.”
The president said that tax reform will be his next major legislative priority. As any tax law student can tell you, the tax code is simple and clear and affects only a small number of highly consistent interests. Piece of cake.