The Art of the Non-Deal

First published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
Written by Quentin Langley

Donald Trump likes to see himself as the master deal-maker: the man who can “win” at negotiations. While this columnist is no admirer of Mr. Trump – not even of his business acumen, let alone his politics– it probably is true to say that making deals is one of his strengths. Conventional wisdom has it, therefore, that the president has lost political capital and credibility over the failed attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act. This columnist is unconventional.

Healthcare reform was President Obama’s signature achievement. It was a wholly partisan one: the legislation was passed without a single Republican vote, and was unpopular from its inception. That people did not like this legislation, however, is no guarantee that any particular proposal to replace it would be popular.

Republicans have been critical of the legislation from the beginning. They have demanded that it be repealed and replaced, though it was always obvious that no such repeal could be enacted while Obama remained President. After Donald Trump joined the Republican Party and began to campaign for its presidential nomination it was necessary for him to attack Obamacare, and he did. He called it failed legislation. But he also put conditions on its replacement which were at odds with the conservative and Republican critique of the law.

Trump did not want any replacement to reduce the number of people covered or to increase insurance premiums. There was clear tension between these objectives and conservative desires to reduce costs and repeal the individual mandate. Such tensions existed because Trump is not and never has been a conservative and is only a Republican for reasons of convenience.

The House bill did not meet Trump’s conditions for healthcare reform. Conservatives in the House found it inadequate because it did not go far enough, but for Trump it went too far. So Trump took advice from the source he trusts most: the infallible Donald Trump. “Know when to walk away from the table” declares his book, The Art of the Deal, so he told the House that if it could not pass a bill in a few days he would not consent to any reform at all and leave Obamacare in place. Such an outcome – assuming he sticks to his pledge – is a major defeat for Republicans, but not for Trump, who never cared about this policy in the first place.

This is, however, a major setback for Speaker Paul Ryan. He was supposed to be the one person whom both conservatives and the establishment trusted; the person who could manage the unruly House caucus and deliver conservative legislation. On this lodestone issue – for Ryan, and for House Republicans – he has failed.

In Trump-world, Ryan is a potential rival, so perhaps Ryan’s defeat seems positive to the president. Though the president still needs the cooperation of Congress for those issues that actually do matter to him. If Congress sees him as petulant and unreliable, that may be harder to secure. And if Ryan is unable to deliver a House majority, then there will be no-one with whom the President can make a deal: artful or not.

Quentin Langley lives in New York and London and teaches at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He is the author of Brandjack: How your reputation is at risk from brand pirates and what to do about it

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