Donald Trump’s most effective pitch to those skeptical of him was probably this: he’s a deal-maker. Yes he’s brash and unpleasant, yes he’s got some extreme views, but when it all comes down to it, Trump is a great negotiator who works to get the best possible outcome for his side. This version of Trump is attractive to Trump skeptics, because it doesn’t require one to gloss over his personal shortcomings or sign on to his severe rhetoric. He can be both a noxious person and also a talented businessman, and it’s easier to swallow his rhetorical extremism if you think it comes from a place of pragmatism rather than rigid ideology. Trump the Deal-Maker is a President who will work to negotiate the best outcome for the American people.
The area where deal-making would be most useful to a President is the legislative arena, which requires him to work with another branch of government that comprises hundreds of individuals with their own agendas and unique sets of electoral incentives. If a president wants his agenda to turn into law, he must work with Congress to make it happen. We’re still early into the Trump Presidency, but he’s already waded into his first big legislative battle. When the House Speaker Paul Ryan came forward with the American Health Care Act (AHCA), Trump was eager to highlight the fact that big legislation is like business. He tweeted:
Our wonderful new Healthcare Bill is now out for review and negotiation. Obamacare is a complete and total disaster – imploding fast!
-Donald Trump, March 7, 2017
That word “negotiation” implied that Trump himself would be manning the helm, making trades and ironing out the wrinkles in what promised to be a contentious process. A week later, he spoke again of the health care battle in business-like terms, calling it a “big, fat, beautiful negotiation.” There again, the President suggested he was using his business savvy to get the best deal for the American people.
Since the bill’s release, though, there’s been very little to lend credence to the idea that Trump is really applying his weight to this. He hasn’t come out in favor of or against any specific provisions in the bill, hasn’t been in meetings with Democrats or moderate Republicans, and hasn’t been facilitating the kind of debate one would expect of a “beautiful negotiation.” Rather, he’s been mostly passive, hardly indicating that he much cares whether the bill passes or fails.
The bill itself was anything but the product of a “big, fat, beautiful negotiation.” It was written in secret (hidden even from many Republicans), passed through committees in the middle of the night with no amendments, and is being rushed to the floor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that if the bill passes the House, it will go straight to the Senate floor. The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday, and so far, only modest changes have been added. The two most consequential changes – an option for states to attach a work requirement for able-bodied adults who want to enroll in Medicaid, and money being put aside for a more generous tax credit to older Americans – are hardly the sort of compromises political historians fawn over. Notably, also, they don’t bear the President’s fingerprints. They don’t bring the bill into line with any of his promises, or bear the marks of a hard-won bargain. No reporting about the issue has indicated that Trump played any role in getting the changes through. He has certainly made no statements publicly suggesting he favored them, and has not rushed to take credit for facilitating them.
Even with the changes, the AHCA is a deeply unsatisfactory bill, inspiring both impassioned resistance on the left and center, and ambivalence on the right. To the far-right, too, the bill has been met with opposition. Even among its supporters, the AHCA is considered merely adequate. So, if Trump is such a great deal maker, why has he settled for such an unimpressive bill? Not only is it a bill almost nobody likes, it is a bill that breaks nearly every promise Trump has ever made on health care, and one that will make life harder for a key Trump constituency. Is this really his opening position?
It’s possible, I suppose, that Trump is going into this with his eyes wide open, fully aware of and comfortable with how things are likely to turn out. It’s possible he’s biding his time, waiting for the right moment to put his thumb on the right lever. But the more obvious and simple explanation is that he’s taking a back seat on this, because it is unimportant to him. Whatever negotiations are taking place are happening largely without his input, and he’s not taking it seriously. It looks as if he got behind the first bill Paul Ryan put in front of him, without paying any attention to the details. He’s more than happy to wag his finger at congressmen, threatening big losses in the midterms if they don’t come through, but when it comes to actually shaping the bill, he’s not in the room.
It’s perfectly fine (and, to some, preferable) for the President to let legislators legislate without presidential micro-management. But this is not what Trump said he would do. Trump pitched himself as a greedy bastard who would go to Washington to be a greedy bastard for the American people. He promised to do things differently, and to get good deals for the people who voted for him. This bill is not a good deal for many of the people who voted for him. It is not a great legislative program that he’s jamming down the throats of a reticent Congress. Instead, he let others in his party take initiative, and he’s accepted it without any recognizable attempt to apply real influence on the content of the legislation, and no detectable resistance to the parts of the bill that are unsatisfying.
So, where is Trump the deal maker? Where is the great negotiator? What is he waiting for? Or was that a swindle all along?