The Art of the Deal requires two parties who actually want a deal

Now that the halfway point of Donald Trump’s first term in office has officially come and gone, the Washington media crew has been scrambling to find some way to commemorate the occasion, define the results of the first two years and make projections as to the next two. In nearly all cases, this means identifying some catchphrase to cast the administration in the worst light possible. That’s the theme we’re seeing from Philip Rucker at the Washington Post (among others) in what apparently passes for clever commentary these days.

Trump ran for office on the premise that he would be able to get things done because of his extensive history in cutting deals, primarily in the real estate game. Heck, the guy even wrote a book titled The Art of the Deal, so it’s certainly fair game for criticism. But Rucker has decided to take the lack of any sort of dealing on the part of Nancy Pelosi as a sign that the Great Dealmaker isn’t so great at making deals.

Trump’s management of the partial government shutdown — his first foray in divided government — has exposed as never before his shortcomings as a dealmaker. The president has been adamant about securing $5.7 billion in public money to construct his long-promised border wall, but he has not won over congressional Democrats, who call the wall immoral and have refused to negotiate over border security until the government reopens.

The 30-day shutdown — the impacts of which have begun rippling beyond the federal workforce into the everyday lives of millions of Americans — is defining the second half of Trump’s term and has set a foundation for the nascent 2020 presidential campaign.

It’s absolutely true that President Trump has not had the amount of success in coming to agreements across the aisle that he seemed to anticipate. Whether that was a case of naiveté on his part or simply too much optimism we’ll likely never know. But pushing this theme without context is a seriously dishonest way to approach political analysis. Allow me to explain.

The first thing to remember is that there is a vast chasm between how businesses operate in the private sector and how the government works. (Please notify me in advance if I’m awarded the Understatement of the Year Prize for that last sentence so I can get my tux to the dry cleaner in time for the ceremony.) The fact is that Donald Trump comes from a business world where deals are arranged between parties who share a mutual objective. They wouldn’t be at the table unless they thought there was a profit to be had and that their opponent was a likely vehicle to achieve that goal.

Dealing in the private sector generally doesn’t involve people who hate each other or are seeking the destruction of their opponent. The parties involved certainly want to get the “better deal” so they come away as a winner, but there’s no final deal without both of them getting something they want unless one of them is a garden variety moron. Everyone approaches the table hoping that a deal will, in fact, be made and that they maximize their profit from it.

That’s not the case in Washington. Nancy Pelosi has no personal skin in the game as to whether a wall is constructed, the dreamers get a reprieve or anything else currently under discussion. Her “profit” doesn’t come from getting something accomplished. What matters is the political “victory” of denying something to her opponent (in this case, Trump) and revving up her base with her bravado. She can declare every offer from President Trump to be “a non-starter” as she did with this one and head straight for the MSNBC cameras looking like a winner.

The Art of the Deal only works when people are actually interested in a deal and have something to lose or gain from the negotiations. When all your opponent has to offer are poison pills, the outcome will always be sickening.

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