WASHINGTON ― If this was The Art of the Deal in action, then Donald Trump needs to write a new book.
In his first, and therefore crucial, foray into presidential negotiating, the prince of New York real estate failed miserably because he was dealing with a world and a way of doing things he never faced when he was buying and building.
In Washington, legislating, and leading the country as president, require more than simply bullying people or buying them off with borrowed cash. As a result, Trump had to postpone a vote Friday on the GOP health care plan he tried to bully through Congress, after it became clear that the legislation could not secure enough votes.
As a harbinger of the future, the situation could not have been more devastating.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t a dictatorship,” Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said as the bill was sliding to oblivion. He sounded resigned to the reality of legislating in a democracy. Whether his boss agrees – and learns – is the key question.
Among other things, President Trump has to learn that in Washington, you can’t simply build your own design. You have to build what other people want. Your job is to find consensus and entice others – many others ― into thinking that your vision is theirs. Projects get “built” here more with rewards than threats. It is not a brutal game of “the last man standing.” It’s “we’re all in this together,” even when the “we” is just your own party.
This first crash-and-burn effort at legislating is not a good sign. Presidencies often are defined, for better or worse, by their first big legislative move. Like first impressions in everyday life, they count bigly, and they establish political dynamics that can last.
And with the rise and aging of the baby boomers, those defining initial moves often have tended in recent decades to focus on health care and pensions. The inter-generational battle is inferred, but explosive.
In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton got his new presidency off on the wrong foot on health care. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a small group of aides developed a sweeping plan behind closed doors and then sprung it on the Congress. It was a political disaster, and led directly to the GOP takeover of the House, and the rise of a proto-tea party led by Newt Gingrich.
President George W. Bush decided at the start of his second (and in some ways first domestic) term in 2005 to propose a fundamental change to Social Security: the creation of private accounts rather than government payments. Democrats hammered him for it, and won back the House and Senate the next year.
President Barack Obama followed the pattern. He placed his major bet early in his first term in 2009-2010 on what came to be known as Obamacare. He pushed it through Congress with only Democratic votes – and greatly expanded coverage – but it cost his party massively in the 2010 midterm elections and, though he won re-election, it limited his reach from then on.
Clinton and Bush, both former governors, and Obama, essentially a novice in 2009, all learned the hard way that the presidency is indeed a powerful job, but that in oddly paradoxical ways, the occupant of the Oval Office has less power than everyone else in Washington when it comes to actually enacting legislation.
“Presidential power is the power to persuade,” the late Harvard professor Richard Neustadt wrote in what is still considered the classic study. To do so, Neustadt wrote, presidents must be careful and anticipatory, listening and adapting while appearing collegial, not dictatorial. And they must carefully nurture and guard their public image of wisdom, probity, patience and smarts.
Whether he wants to or not, Trump must learn how to acquire those qualities if he is to succeed. He got his first on-the-job lesson this week, as he tried to herd Republican cats.
In his first effort, he made numerous mistakes.
Like the Clintons, Trump (or rather Speaker Ryan) sprang the Obamcare “reform and replace” bill on Congress and his own party without notice and with little input. A law is not like a construction blueprint. The builders don’t work for you.
Second, his first meeting with recalcitrant House conservatives in the Freedom Caucus devolved into a bullying session, with the new president threatening to “come after” GOP members who defied him. Well, it’s hard enough for a president to bully members, even of his own party. It is even harder when he has the lowest job-approval rating on record for a new president, and when the bill itself isn’t popular with voters.
Last, and most important, Trump’s image as an enfant terrible – which he rightly thinks had a lot to do with his winning the election – is exactly the wrong role to play as a new (or any) president.
President Ronald Reagan, who as a candidate struck terror in the hearts of liberals, and with good reason, understood the need to play the new role he had won when he came to Washington in 1981.
Even before taking the oath of office, he reached out to the late publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham, and set up a dinner party with longtime power players in the city. He would have to defeat them, he knew, but he wanted to both get to know them and reassure them that he would respect them.
It worked, and in later years, Reagan did deals not only with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, but also with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Trump has roared into D.C. like the leader of a motorcycle gang, and that is fine – if you think that everyone else in town is afraid of you and that your supporters are all riding Harleys.
But that is the way for a new president to fail, and to set up a dynamic that will cost him for the rest of his term. Trump can listen to the nihilistic anarchism of, say, Steven Bannon, and “deconstruct” a good bit of the “administrative state” through lawlessness, administrative neglect and pure human fear.
Or he could actually build something.