If President Trump were the ace dealmaker he claims to be, there would be no government shutdown and his approval rating wouldn’t be sliding. But the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal” seems to mistake obstinacy for courage and propaganda for shrewdness.
The partial shutdown that began Dec. 22 is the most transparent display yet of Trump’s dealmaking skills. Or lack of skills. As a stick, Trump is withholding pay from 800,000 federal workers and revenue from nearly 10,000 private-sector companies that contract with agencies that are now unfunded. Thing is, you’re supposed to threaten your opponent—not innocent bystanders—with the negotiating stick. Trump apparently thinks he’s hurting his chief Democratic rival, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, by keeping the government shut. He’s not.
If Trump has a carrot, he hasn’t produced it yet. And there actually is a carrot in the current impasse. Trump wants around $5.7 billion in funding for his border wall, which Congressional Democrats won’t give him. But Trump hasn’t offered Democrats anything in exchange for his wall money. If he offered a deal on the so-called Dreamers—people brought to the United States illegally as children, who now want permanent citizenship—Democrats might jump at it. They could easily spin a ransom payment for the Dreamers as a win, and so could Trump, since many Republicans are fine with the Dreamers becoming permanent citizens.
Anybody who has ever dickered with a car salesman or bought a house knows that a negotiation involves give and take. You get something, the other side gets something, and if both sides end up a little unhappy it’s probably a fair deal. Trump’s approach is absolutist. He wants everything, and isn’t willing to give anything. This isn’t dealmaking. It’s bullying. And every bully has an Achilles heel.
Trump’s shutdown strategy is obvious: Prolong the shutdown until the pain it causes forces Pelosi and the Democrats to buckle. He assumes his core supporters will stick with him no matter what, while his tweeting and spinning and fearmongering gradually turn other voters against the Democrats.
It’s not working. Polls show around 55% of Americans blame Trump and his fellow Republicans for the shutdown, while about one-third blame Democrats. It’s inevitable Trump will get the blame. He’s the nation’s most visible leader, to state the obvious, and the one person who can single-handedly end the shutdown, simply by signing spending bills Congress has already passed. And of course he bragged in December that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government, one of the bigger blunders of his presidency so far.
Worse for Trump, he’s actually losing support among his so-called base, including evangelicals and suburban men. His overall approval rating, which has hovered in the mid-40% range, is now in the 30s in polls by Gallup, YouGov and others. The deep irony is that Trump is wielding his negotiating stick against himself.
Other Trump negotiating efforts have been less public. We don’t know much about how he and his team are working with the North Koreans to downsize the regime’s nuclear weapons program, or with the Chinese to improve market access in China for American exporters. But if he’s demanding everything and offering nothing, like he is in the shutdown fiasco, the result will be similar: needless damage and nothing to show for it.
Trump excels at one thing: self-promotion. So maybe he’ll unjam himself on the shutdown by declaring a national emergency, raiding other government accounts for his border-wall money, and declaring victory. That, however, would not be a deal. It would be an evasion, which might suggest the next subject Trump can declare himself an expert on: the art of bailing out.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman