Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Listen: Trump is a poor strategist, example #23442

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the budget fight is going to be ugly.  One key consideration is funding for a border wall.  Trump wants it so that he doesn't appear weak, but few other people do.  Democrats are united against it and it's uncertain all Republicans in the Senate are behind it.  That's a problem for Trump, since a budget needs at least eight Democrats to pass.

As the underlying realities grow increasingly clear, and after being humiliated by the drubbing he took over the May budget, Trump has vowed he will get that wall... even if he has to shut down the government to do it.
The fight over the wall is likely to explode in September as the administration wrangles over a new budget, an increase in the debt ceiling, the beginning of a tax reform package and a possible resuscitation of health care legislation.
Trump has told his advisers he will not accept a deal on other issues without money for the wall “and it has to be real money,” said one senior White House official.
Trump has told senior White House officials and advisers he would be willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to get money for the wall, a contentious claim even among his advisers.
At a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, the president reiterated to his loyalists that he is committed to his vision for securing the border. “If we have to close down our government," Trump said, "we're building that wall.”
It's hard to imagine how this goes well for Trump.  Here are some possibilities.

Scenario A (not likely): Democrats buckle and eight of them cross the aisle to vote for a budget with funding for a wall.  I cannot imagine a list of eight Democrats who would do this -- five is about as high as I can get -- but it's possible, assuming that they extract a lot of concessions.  Those Democrats would be knowingly taking a huge risk, though.

Scenario B (somewhat likely): Congress approves a compromise budget without the wall, but probably with significant amounts of other things that Trump wants.  Trump signs it but blasts Congress as the enemy.  This is very possible, since the president often folds under pressure.

Scenario C (somewhat likely): Congress cannot agree to a budget, and passes a continuing resolution for the year.  This would forgo passing any legislation by reconciliation, however, so even though reaching some sort of real deal will be difficult, Republicans in Congress have enormous incentive to make it work.  Without reconciliation, after all, they have no hope of repealing Obamacare or passing tax cuts for the rich.

Scenario D (most likely): Congress passes a budget that has either zero or some small amount of funding for the wall, perhaps under a fig leaf for more "border security fencing."  Trump rejects the bill, shutting down the government.  Then... it becomes a game about who will blink first.

If you consider these possibilities -- thinking through it just a bit! -- it's clear that the White House should hope for A and plan for B.  But Trump is working hard to actually remove Scenario B from the realm of possibility.

To be clear, this is a viable option in many cases.  Game theory suggests that winning many negotiations can come down to eliminating your own option to retreat.  If you can credibly assert that you cannot possibly surrender on some point of a deal, then your opponent cannot credibly demand that you yield.  You can arrange such a situation by publicly and repeatedly vowing never to surrender ahead of time.  When Trump repeatedly states that he won't accept a budget without a wall, he is eliminating the option to do so, since Democrats will know that surrendering will be incredibly embarrassing.

So this approach can make sense.  But it doesn't work if your opponent would love for negotiations to fail!  You can't eliminate options and put pressure on a negotiating partner if they would be perfectly happy for negotiations to end!

To put it another way: imagine you want to buy a car.  The dealer says he will sell you a junker for $10,000.  You say that this price is not reasonable, and you'd be willing to pay $500 for it.  The dealer says that he can't change the price, since he's been advertising it for ten grand ("It would be too embarrassing!")

Well, do you buy the car?  Nope!  You walk away.

Perhaps Trump imagines it will be powerful and dominant to veto a budget and issue demands, and that he will be able to blame a government shutdown on unreasonable Democrats.  But Democrats would love to be able to take a principled stand over something as unpopular and absurd as billions for a border wall.  There must be hours and hours of footage of Trump vowing that "Mexico is going to pay for it," and the idea of the wall polls poorly among the public.  And because of the way this fight is progressing, people will blame a president who's already caught in a narrative of incompetence.

From a pessimist's perspective, it's possible that Trump will successfully gin up outrage against "obstructionism," but that seems far-fetched.

I don't know how all this will end, but I'd guess that the budget will be sent back to the president with some sort of minor changes, and he will sign it and declare that he had just been taking a "negotiating position" or some other silliness.

Trump needs to read some Thomas Schelling, stat.

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