Now might be a good time to revisit some of the grand and inspiring rhetoric with which Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015. “I’ve watched the politicians,” Trump said then. “I’ve dealt with them all. If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re certainly not very good.”
Or maybe we should go back to the first Republican debate in Cleveland, when Trump flatly asserted, “Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid,” while eight of those politicians stood mute onstage and grinned stupidly, because everybody knew Trump couldn’t really be the nominee anyway, so why make a whole big scene by refusing to be bullied and berated.
You’ve got to wonder if some of those guys took just a little satisfaction last week in watching Trump fail to cut a deal with his own party on health care. You have to imagine that Jeb Bush or John Kasich was sitting in front of the TV thinking to himself: “Welcome to the NFL, genius.”
Because right about now it should be dawning on Trump that politics isn’t just business for stupid people. There’s a reason so little gets done.
I’m not saying Trump doesn’t bring undervalued skills to the presidency, because he does. A guy who’s put together megadeals in real estate or entertainment is going to come at a political problem more strategically and maybe more pragmatically than some of the career legislators I’ve known, who probably couldn’t win a negotiation over bedtime with my 9-year-old.
But anyone who’s had considerable success in both business and politics — and I spoke to a few leaders like that this week — could have told Trump that ramming legislation through Congress isn’t the same thing as raising up a casino or a high-rise. The principles that work in one arena don’t necessarily translate to the other.
In real estate, even a deal that’s unusually complex is a relatively straightforward proposition. Everybody wants to make money — either off selling land or developing it. Everybody has something the other guy wants. You negotiate your way to the bottom of the market, and then you run the numbers.
There’s always another house, or tract of land, or car — that’s the psychology behind all smart business negotiation. If you’re not willing to set your final terms and walk away, you’re not coming out a winner.
A negotiation like the one Trump just bungled, though, is more like buying a building from a small army of owners rather than one or two, and all of them split into factions that have entirely different agendas.
“You’ve got to get 218 votes, and any individual or small group can be a holdup or pop up with some new requirement,” Mark Warner, who made a fortune off mobile phones before becoming Virginia’s governor and then senator, told me. “It’s a little like whack-a-mole.”
In politics, there isn’t always — or ever — another Congress you can turn to. It’s this law or no law, which means you can’t just lay down your terms and walk away, as Trump tried to do. You have to keep coming back at it, and you have to realize that some of the factions may have zero interest in getting to yes, which is really never true in a business negotiation.
As Johnny Isakson, a senator who built a real estate business in Georgia, puts it: “I sold thousands of houses over the years, and I never sold a house to someone who didn’t want to buy it, and I never bought a house from someone who didn’t want to sell.”
In business, your leverage is always the money you bring to the table or some essential resource you control. In Congress, especially in the age after earmarks, the only real pressure you bring to bear as president is the public will.
You can’t do much cajoling or threatening of reluctant legislators if you’re boasting a 36 percent approval rating, and you can’t just call up the public approval bank and borrow another 10 points at a discounted rate.
Plenty of people will enter into a real estate deal with a guy they don’t like — even if he has a reputation for filing frivolous lawsuits and welching on contractors. In the political arena, trust and constancy are the only tradable currencies. The shiftier and more erratic you seem, the less anyone feels like betting his future on your soothing assurances.
And, unlike in most secretive business deals, the various offers and counteroffers in Washington are played out in public, which means whatever you do to win votes among one faction will cost you support in another as soon as you hang up the phone.
Let’s be clear: Trump isn’t the first president to find all this hard to navigate. Our last three presidents had decades of political experience between them, and all of them stumbled through missteps in their opening months, squandering their governing majorities in the process.
If Trump’s half as smart as he’s always telling us he is, then he has more than enough capacity to get this right. He still has plenty of time to go back to the table and put together a health care deal that passes.
The problem for Trump is that he doesn’t seem to have learned any cautionary lessons from the experience. He still seems to think there’s nothing wrong with his nascent administration that can’t be fixed by a few bromides from “The Art of the Deal.”
Practically the first thing Trump did after watching the health care bill crash and burn was to announce a new initiative aimed at making government run more like a business. This he entrusted to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who used to control a tiny newspaper and a bunch of real estate that he bought with his dad’s money, but who now has a White House portfolio that includes negotiating Middle East peace and reinventing trade policy.
It’s all right, though, because Jared majored in government at Harvard, so he knows what he’s doing. Also, you can’t blame him for the health care debacle, since he was off skiing in Aspen while it was falling apart.
What Trump needs now isn’t the comfort of family. What he needs is to take a look around and realize that his Team of Amateurs (don’t even think about stealing that, Doris Kearns Goodwin) isn’t up to running a White House. He needs to put a few people around him, like maybe his pal Chris Christie, who have some grasp of the tradecraft of politics and know something about governing.
It’s time for Trump to put away all that crowd-pleasing contempt and admit that politics is actually just as hard as business, if not harder, and he’s not exactly killing it like Lyndon Johnson.
It doesn’t look like he’s ready to do that, though. And if I were one of those accomplished politicians Trump slammed onstage at that first debate and many times after, I’d be tempted to call him now and remind him of an old movie line.
Stupid is as stupid does.