For someone who ran on the strength of his skill as a negotiator – indeed, with deal-making as his supposed crucial advantage over political experience or a track record with social policy – Donald Trump has fallen shockingly short on the world stage. In my decades as an attorney, I’ve engaged in numerous negotiations, and without Trumpian conceit I have a solid grasp on the basics. The President, to all appearances, does not.
Observing the epic fail of the Republican effort to replace Obamacare as a case study in Negotiating 101, Trump made seven fundamental missteps:
- He was equivocal from the outset. As the Republican bill was being crafted with a shroud of secrecy and then was unveiled to a skeptical public, the White House kept its distance. There was a tweet or two endorsing it, in rather measured terms for Mr. Superlative, but he didn’t place himself in the middle of any fanfare. After building a career out of making “Trump” a brand, he was reluctant to attach his name to it. It’s hard to sell if you can’t own it. Maybe he could see it was likely to falter, and wanted to preserve his option to disassociate himself from a failure. But at this point in his presidency, he really needed an achievement. His travel bans have stumbled in the courts, he’s been dogged by relentless revelations about ties between Russia and his campaign, his budget gored his base supporters and horrified others, and the taxpayer expense to support his frequent golf trips to Florida and his family’s lavish lifestyle continues to overshadow his agenda. Targeting Obamacare has been a Republican mantra since 2010 and was a persistent theme in Trump’s campaign appearances. The man did not have the luxury to sit out the rollout to make it easier to blame others down the road.
- He made no effort to pitch it to the public. Paul Ryan was widely mocked for his roll-up-the-sleeves power point presentation, but at least he was trying to explain why he thought the package was good policy. Trump lacks the attention span to master the “complicated” details of health care policy, but he should be able to tick off some bullet points in its favor. To be sure, it would be challenging to square the bill with his campaign promises, and difficult to explain to his blue-collar fans why they were being screwed to support tax breaks for insurance companies and the very wealthy, but he didn’t even try. It was as if the reasons why Republicans hated Obamacare were too obvious to point out, and it should just be assumed anything else must be an improvement. Trump skipped altogether the part where he was supposed to make the case for the change, and went straight to the political calculation of who’s on board and who isn’t.
- He identified the bill as an opening bid. You don’t generally start negotiations with no room to compromise, but you also don’t typically go out of your way to flag your starting position as merely a beginning point. By doing so, you admit to posturing and convey an expectation of retreat. The better approach is to emphasize the merits of the proposal as already reasonable and balanced, so any later concessions become reluctant steps to gain consensus.
- He bullied his natural allies. Trump’s infamous communication to wavering Republicans in Congress was to beware of 2018, at best a prediction of political consequence and at worst a veiled threat. Sometimes in complicated negotiations, in addition to interacting with the opposition, you also have to work with others that have aligned interests. There’s an art to finding common ground with allies, but bullying is not the best path to build consensus. Maybe Trump can sink those on his enemies list, but he has yet to prove he can carry anyone, either. He already has too much baggage to bank on turning it into a test of personal fealty.
- He lost patience too early. There was no particular rush to bring the matter to a head on Friday, insisting on a vote after a tactical retreat a day earlier. It was another bully move, expecting Republicans to fall in line when as of Thursday the votes weren’t there. An able negotiator has a sense of pace, knows when to pause and rebuild, when to press an advantage. Instead of reading the currents and taking the time to assemble a coalition of support, Trump pushed when he should have pulled.
- He backed down on an ultimatum. After the vote was postponed Thursday, Trump insisted on a come-what-may vote on Friday. By Friday afternoon, when the outcome was apparent, the bill was withdrawn without a vote. Trump may have thought his bold ultimatum would force the no-votes in his party to change position, but he failed to follow through by forcing them to cast their votes in defiance. Anyone with experience in litigation knows you should not, as a negotiating tactic, make threats you are not prepared to carry out. If you say you’re going to file a lawsuit unless your demands are met, you better be prepared to file. The House Republicans called his bluff, and he backed away.
- He was a sore loser. News flash. I don’t think anyone expected Trump to accept a political setback with anything resembling grace. But it wasn’t long ago that we had someone in the White House who, in a corresponding position, would have offered conciliatory comments aimed at future efforts. Trump, by contrast, blamed the Democrats. Republicans control the White House and both Houses of Congress, indeed with a 40-odd advantage in the House, and Trump still couldn’t muster a majority, yet somehow the blame lies with the Democrats. Trump’s vision now is that Obamacare will explode and Democrats will come crawling. A sour-grapes revenge fantasy is hardly the foundation for a productive bipartisan working relationship in the future.