As we sift the ashes of the Trumpcare flameout, we should revisit one of the biggest cons of the ’16 campaign — the notion that Trump was a dealmaking maestro, a brilliant closer who’d fix government by running it like a business.
That presidential campaign wasn’t much fun, as you may recall, but I have to admit that every time a Trump fan said on TV that we needed a businessman like him to run America, I laughed out loud. I had the same reaction, post-election, when a Trumpy conservative website, The Daily Caller, giddily predicted that Trump would change Washington “by running it like one of his successful, profitable businesses. Why not use a proven framework? … Trump could turn the United States of America into a productive, streamlined corporation.”
I marveled at this naivete for two reasons: Trump was a terrible role model, having been bailed out of six bankruptcies by a dwindling number of indulgent investors; and there’s no historical record of any businessman successfully running America as a business.
The sole career businessman ever elected to the presidency was mining magnate Herbert Hoover. He was touted in 1928 as a problem-solver who’d bring his engineering skills to the public sector. You know what happened next. The stock market crashed, and as the Great Depression deepened, Hoover made things worse because he couldn’t communicate, cajole, compromise, or inspire. He fatally lacked the political skills required of a president.
Nevertheless, we’ve occasionally indulged the business-deification syndrome. Lee Iacocca, the Chrysler CEO, was floated as a candidate during the ’70s, Olympic Games leader Peter Ueberroth had a trial balloon during the ’80s, data-processing mogul Ross Perot ran twice during the ’90s, and Mitt Romney touted his business skills in ’12. Then came Trump — who pledged that he’d knock heads in Washington because he’s a “closer.” That’s what Sean Spicer reiterated last week as the Trumpcare saga neared its climax: “He is the closer.”
What a joke. Trump couldn’t close a window if someone showed him the latch.
He just assumed that everyone (especially the right-wing House Republicans) would fall in line at his command, like the way it worked in his cocooned business world. He made his money (and lost it, and made it again) in a family-run business that was not held accountable by stockholders, that did not require him to develop subtle powers of persuasion. His shtick was the ultimatum, and if that didn’t work, he could always walk away and find new investors, suppliers, and contractors.
It doesn’t work that way in government. Something that should have been obvious to voters, like, a year ago.
A president is curbed by checks and balances (what a relief that they’re still working), by judges who are empowered to say no (witness the smackdown of two travel bans), by legislators who don’t necessarily respond well to commands. When Steve Bannon, the white nationalist apparatchik, told the Freedom Caucus conservatives that they had to support Trumpcare (“Guys, look,” Bannon reportedly said. “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.”), one House member replied: “The last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”
It’s hard for a president to command respect and issue ultimatums when he doesn’t know anything about policy. When Republican lawmakers met with Trump and tried to dig into the health care details, he told them: “Forget about the little shit.” But they couldn’t forget, because they, unlike him, knew darn well that health care policy is all about the details.
The art of the deal … so much for that marketing canard. And Trump can’t just walk away and wipe the slate clean, like he did so often in the real estate biz. The internally divided House Republicans, especially the Freedom Caucusers who defied him on Trumpcare, will still be there. The Democrats, who smell his blood in the water, will still be there. The free and independent press, which is wise to his lies and bluster, will still be there.
And the Trumpcare humiliation will damage prospects for the rest of his domestic agenda. His budget blueprint, with its draconian domestic cuts, is already DOA in the Republican Senate. His ambition to enact tax reform — a herculean task, last achieved successfully three decades ago — will be further hampered by the growing perception that he is what he dreads most: weak.
As Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative activist and GOP policy adviser, said the other day, “Failure is a very damaging thing politically. I don’t see how you recover.”
Or, as someone else said, “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion, and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
Page 60, “The Art of the Deal.”