My father was a salesman. After he retired to a seniors’ condo community, he ran for and was elected president of his condominium association, a position he held until failing health forced him to resign. He was very successful at selling both insurance and ideas, and he would have been aghast at how President Trump violates every principle of successful salesmanship and negotiation.
Dad would frequently say, “I don’t just sell insurance. I sell myself.” He explained that there really wasn’t a lot of difference between the products he and his competitors sold. What mattered was that he was skilled in assuring his customers that his word was golden, that his customers knew exactly what they were buying, that there were no surprises, and that he would be available to help them with any problems they might encounter after the sale was completed. He was good for his word — he built his successful health insurance business on the strength of referrals his customers gave.
While he was condo association president, he negotiated contracts for services like building maintenance. He negotiated cable TV contracts to provide service to hundreds of condo owners, and he was involved in pretty nearly all the association’s business dealings. Dad’s strategy for dealing with vendors was “You want the people you’re dealing with to give you the best deal you can get, but they have to be happy with it, too. Always leave something on the table for the other guy.” Those principles saved his condo association thousands of dollars in insurance costs and provided all 400 unit owners basic Comcast service for $8 per month. Even for 1987, that was a spectacular price.
Compare those straightforward principles — tell the truth, stand by your word, give the other side a reason to work together — to the President’s negotiating tactics: demean your negotiating partners; threaten to blow up negotiations; renege on your agreements; offer nothing to the other side; and never budge an inch on your demands.
Last Wednesday, Trump’s negotiations with Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer began with his asking, “Will you agree to my wall?” without offering them any incentives to change their position. Pelosi refused to cave in, Trump said, “Then we have nothing to discuss” and just walked out. The very next day, as negotiations to break the partial government shutdown remained stalled, the President said, “I find China, frankly, in many ways to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy. I really do. I think that China is actually much easier to deal with than the opposition party.” After that, no one would say, “Gee, thanks for the put-down, Mr. President, let’s make a deal.” To be sure, congressional Democrats are being inflexible, but just as surely, Trump made it that much harder for them to change their positions.
The partial government shutdown also reflects the President’s incoherent negotiating stance, one where no one can rely on his word. Trump first claimed that he would proudly “take the mantle of shutting it down” if Democrats would not give him what he wanted. That changed just 10 days later to “the Democrats now own the shutdown.” On Dec. 19, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open until mid-February. Republican senators said that Trump would sign it, but the president eschewed the advice of his Senate allies and yielded to pressure from his most trusted counsels, the policy experts on Fox and Friends. That flip-flop hung Senate Majority Leader McConnell completely out to dry. Trump’s dithering on the nature of the wall or fence, concrete or steel bars, $5 billion or $20 billion, paid for with a check from Mexico or perhaps from enhanced revenues from a not-yet signed trade pact made it impossible for anyone, Republican allies or Democratic opponents, to know what he would settle for.
The President could have accepted an offer for a “grand bargain” a year ago, when Schumer offered $20 billion to fund the wall in exchange for Trump’s guarantee to support the 700,000 people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — DACA. Trump was unwilling, and the government shut down for three days. He could have had the wall, earned some political capital, and created an opportunity for more cooperation. If my father were still alive, he’d have said, “For the President to reject that deal was pretty artless.”