Trump’s Bring-the-Pain Politics Aren’t Working

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s failure to understand that he represents all Americans, not just his strongest supporters, might explain why he has the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in a first term. And it might be the reason he has repeatedly attempted a bargaining gambit that failed each time.

The maneuvers he tried to pull off for health care, the Dreamers and family separation aim to cause harm. The logic seems to be: If I can hurt you, you will be forced to make concessions.

This kind of thuggish behavior might get results in real estate, but it’s extremely unlikely to succeed in politics.

The problem is that when Trump causes deliberate harm, it’s not his bargaining partners who are affected. He’s hurting constituency groups, and that doesn’t work to the president’s advantage. Take his policies that aimed to produce higher insurance premiums so the president could pressure Democrats to support a repeal of Obamacare. Those measures backfired because it’s difficult to ensure that only groups in districts represented by Democrats are hit. 

The more central problem is that voters (and the media) tend to blame or credit presidents for most things that happen, even when the president isn’t responsible. Put another way: The strategy can’t work because any constituency that is harmed by (or simply disapproves of) a president’s actions is also part of the president’s constituency, which is the entire nation. So when Trump revoked DACA and then attempted to force Democrats to “solve” the problem by agreeing to his proposals for building a border wall and cutting back on legal immigration, the pressure didn’t fall on the opposition party. Instead, it landed squarely on the president. 

Again: This is what happens even when the president isn’t responsible for some wrong. The backlash is as bad, or worse, when the president deliberately does harm.  

It’s true that Trump himself seems to feel that everything is OK as long as his strongest supporters are happy. But the consequences are bad for him even if he (and those strongest supporters) don’t realize it: He’s the least popular of any president after this many days in office during the polling era despite generally good economic news. He also is unable to get the things he says he wants, such as the border wall and reduced legal immigration.  

To some extent, Trump’s approach may be a byproduct of his reported belief that there’s no such thing as a win-win negotiation. This idea is even more faulty in politics than it might be in business. But to a large extent, Trump continues to govern as if the only people he has any responsibility to are his strongest supporters. This, too, may be a leftover from his business thinking. To make money from Trump University it took only a tiny fraction of all consumers to buy in. It didn’t matter if other people thought the whole set-up was a scam, and the person who put his name on it was a buffoon. But politics isn’t like that. Strong opponents aren’t at all the same as mild or indifferent ones. The more someone is ticked off by the president, the more he or she will mobilize to oppose him. And as more people are more ticked off, the opposition’s resources in money and volunteer hours and expertise grow. 

It’s also true that to some extent Trump, perhaps advised by Republicans who have been involved in previous showdowns, is replicating the dubious hostage-taking strategies that the party’s lawmakers have used in battles with Democratic presidents. Except in those cases, Republicans didn’t hold the White House, and they generally weren’t inflicting harm first and then asking for concessions to make it go away. 

Or maybe Trump just isn’t good at negotiating for other reasons. The “why” of it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Trump isn’t learning from previous attempts to use this strategy. And when presidents fail to learn from their mistakes, it usually is costly to them. And to the nation.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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