The Great Wall of Distraction or Why The President is a Lousy Dealmaker

From the December 2017 report from the Department of Homeland Security:

Arrests of people trying to cross illegally into the U.S. from Mexico plunged to the lowest level since 1971, as fewer people attempted the trek, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday.

Meanwhile, immigration arrests in the interior of the country increased by 25 percent, the data show. [NPR]

What we know is that (1) the President didn’t get ‘wall money’ in the recent Omnibus Bill; (2) four immigration bills failed as of February 2018 in the US Senate; (3) the Special Counsel has interviewed at least two Russian oligarchs [CNN]; (4) his selection for National Security Adviser is up to his ears in an investigation of Cambridge Analytica [NYT] and (5) the President is a ‘subject’ of the Mueller investigation, although not a target at this time; [WaPo] (6) if the administration isn’t careful there’s a trade war in the offing with China.  It must be time for The Wall.

So, why are broadcasters focusing on the Administration’s version of the Ming Dynasty wall renovation and construction efforts (1368-1644), and why now?

At one level there’s the obvious diversion of the conversation away from the actual news of the day, see list above.  I’ve not seen it done to date, but surely someone out there is measuring the time differential between negative news concerning the president and the launching of a new assault on immigrants.

Another onion layer may well be the utility of the immigration issue with the Trumpian base voter — the issue as currently framed is almost blatantly racist, note there is no “national security” issue with those coming across the northern border, and little attention to immigrants who have overstayed visas from European countries.  For those who believe that make America great again actually means make America white controlled again, the diversion is a nice interlude for self congratulation and confirmation.

The utility of immigration as an attention grabber may also be related to what is becoming evident — the President is a lousy deal maker.

The prime rule in negotiations is Get Organized. Here’s a thought: Have A Plan.  Better still have a detailed plan.  Know what is wanted, what is essential, what can be bargained away, what is the ‘walk off point,’ what are the priorities.  Business and labor negotiators know that preparation is essential, and that it’s necessary to view the bargaining positions from both perspectives, and to prepare accordingly.

Few issues better illustrate the administration’s failure to plan than immigration.  There were four bills in the Senate last February [Vox] and all of them failed because the administration kept moving the goal posts. The president moved from a ‘send me a bipartisan bill,’ to send me a bill with money for a wall, to send me a bill with funding for the wall and an end to family reunification programs and a limit to legal immigration and a system of merit based immigration….  The fact that the presidential position kept changing during the negotiation process with the Senate is a sure sign the White House wasn’t clear what it wanted in the first place and kept trying to insert issues into the package without having an initial position which was clear to others at the bargaining table. If nothing more, the administration should have prepared a listing of priorities, in ranked order.  A similar failure to plan out a cogent and consistent position was also visible in the propositions for gun law reformation.   A failure to get organized in the first place often leads to problems all too common when one side isn’t actually listening to the other.

Rule Two — Know the Opposition.  This requires good old fashioned preparation and equally essential listening.  When Senators were debating the immigration proposals last February both sides understood a solution for DACA recipients was desirable, but that funding for wall building on the southern border was problematic, and limitations on legal immigration complicated an already frustrating situation.  The Collins-Schumer Plan had the best chance of success in the Senate but failed 54-46 when the goal posts moved.   A failure to plan out a detailed proposal combined with a failure to pick up the signals from seasoned Congressional negotiators about what would add votes from ‘the other side of the aisle’ doomed the legislative process.

Rule Three — Hard bargaining looks good but it very rarely works.  There’s a huge difference between extending proposals and posturing.  The White House signaled ‘hard bargaining’ when in the wake of what appeared a promising start on immigration issues rapidly devolved into chaos when the White House later responded with a laundry list of extreme positions which removed the focus from a solvable issue (DACA) to a more intractable one — general immigration policy reform. When the White House moved into another ‘hard bargaining’ stance (Take It Or Leave It)  the  Senate failed to defuse the situation by ignoring the hard line offer, and having a counter-offer at hand to resolve a more mutually desirable resolution to a solvable problem, in this instance DACA.

Rule Four — Never bargain against yourself. Side A makes an offer. Side B responds with a request for a concession from Side A before making a counter offer. Wrong. Again, the administration’s sliding positions on what would be acceptable immigration policy legislation had both the White House and the Senators inviting unreciprocated offers.  At some point the Senators would have been well advised to tell the White House they awaited a definite, written, and specific counter offer to the Collins-Schumer Bill and then sat tight.

Rule Five — Sharing works in bargaining.  While it isn’t necessary to put all one’s cards on the table, especially previously prepared  counter offers, it is helpful for both sides to share information which informs general positions.  It might be financial information, or anecdotal points of reference, or even personal. However, if reciprocity is what is wanted then sharing is just as important at the bargaining table as it was in kindergarten.

Rule Six — Know how to get to Yes. If Side A and Side B are truly bargaining, and not merely posturing, and if they come to the table prepared with ranked priorities and specific proposals and counter offers, then at some point they will get to the YES part.  The Yes Zone is the point at which Side A has conceded all it can without reordering its priorities and Side B has gained all it can without facing a rebellion in the mass meeting or board room. There must be an understanding from the outset that neither side will get everything it wants.  That’s not bargaining or deal making — that’s just bluster and posturing.

Unfortunately, the White House violated all six of these rules of the bargaining road, which leaves a person with the impression that for all the vaunted “Art of the Deal” the president doesn’t move much further than making an offer, badgering someone into submission, and then litigating when the inevitable impasse is reached.  In short, not only doesn’t the Oval Office know how to bargain effectively it doesn’t even give the appearance of knowing what its initial positions should be and how those should be developed, organized, and presented.

Without a basic knowledge of what constitutes effective bargaining (and Lord knows there is a plethora of articles on the subject from all manner of perspectives) the White House will be forced to revert to the posturing which puts a premium on distraction and publicity and discounts constructive solutions.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Great Wall of Distraction or Why The President is a Lousy Dealmaker

  1. It is also funny in the context that the Trans Pacific Partnership of eleven nations was created to control China. Now that Trump removed the US from the TPP, how is that unilateral trade war going?