When Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to President Trump’s announcement of his “new” compromise on the border wall, she made a classic miscue—as have many others—in sparring with Donald Trump. She played on his turf.

Trump is a master of manipulation. His use of a televised announcement on Saturday, like his previous remarks from the Oval Office, is a classic example of how he uses the implements of power in his command to control the narrative. His immovable position on the border wall as a prerequisite for negotiations to end the government shutdown is a public relations ploy that works because his pronouncements are made against the backdrop of the Presidency of the United States which, despite the current occupant in the White House, has enduring credence with the American public.

However, by proclaiming his proposal dead on arrival, the Speaker, a far savvier politician than the President will ever be, fell into the trap of trying to out-mule the most obstinate person ever to sit in the Oval Office. This tactical miscue was unwittingly compounded by taking another page from the Trump playbook—acting in ways that are transactional rather than strategic–hence, Ms. Pelosi missed some big-picture political opportunities. Had she just said, “Thank you, Mr. President, we’ll consider your offer; now, let’s open the government and discuss the details,” she would have won the public relations skirmish in this seemingly never-ending struggle over the partial government shutdown.

She could then shift the turf to where she excels: the negotiating table, where it has been amply demonstrated that she is a far superior deal-maker than the President. Her skill in this arena could have kept the substance of the House position intact. In negotiations, she could politically out-maneuver the President and promote an agenda that actually works for the American people.

But, as paychecks continue to show zeros, as TSA lines continue to lengthen and air traffic controllers increasingly claim that the skies are not safe, as paperwork delays hold up everything from delivering subpoenas to Medicare applications, as forest rangers and FBI agents move off the front lines, people will increasingly see the logjam in Washington as caused by both sides. Nuances of who is responsible for the shutdown will fade and it will increasingly become simply “Washington” or “Republicans and Democrats” who are to blame.

In my recent book, Beyond the Comma, one of the principles I outline as essential in “courageous conversations” is to keep talking. Even if dialogue seems circuitous and little progress is evident, as long as the conversation continues, there is the possibility for movement.  The Speaker rejected this principle–“a non-starter”–at her own peril. As the heartbreaking stories of those who depend upon government work increase in both the media and in face-to-face interactions at all levels of our society, the seeming failure of engaging in a process that ends the shutdown will become an increasing political liability.

While the Speaker’s moral outrage and resolute intransigence may have led to a momentary “gotcha” opportunity in her rejection of Trump’s non-proposal, the long-term political gain for appearing reasonable in opposition to the President’s arrogant lack of empathy for those effected by the shutdown is incalculable and will, no doubt, extend long into the 2020 political season.

5 thoughts on “Pelosi’s Optics Miscue

  1. She heard you I guess. The recent announcement by Speaker Pelosi and Chair Cummings that if the issue is border security, and not just to fulfill a campaign promise for a wall, Dems will agree to $5.7 billion for border security as long as we open the government NOW. She knows that the leader who finds the solution will win the support of the American people. Empathy, not self dealing, will prevail.

  2. First though there needs to be a clarion statement that we don’t negotiate with a gun tour heads. It isn’t clear enough in the shouting that this is “hostage taking” And if it is successful it will be used again, and again. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” is where she is. And I agree, the substantive counter to that is “move the barrier discussion to a select committee — nothing off the table” then move ahead with opening the Government. It is however very, very important even when the stakes are high— and perhaps most when the stakes are high — to hold moral ground for the sake of future generations.

  3. Since it was first floated in the press several weeks ago, I’ve believed that Senator Graham’s proposal was worth considering as a starting point. The perfunctory rejections from both sides did not diminish it merits. First among those is that the trade-off represents relatively equal moral weight, by which I mean that a significant number of Americans view DACA as just as morally repugnant as another group of Americans views
    the wall. Second, both prongs of the proposal, in basic concept, have been voted for by our representatives in the past, with significant overlap. And last, for voters on both sides of the issue an optimistic view of the upcoming elections provides an opportunity to undo whichever prong they find repugnant–if they win.
    There are limits to this kind of deal-making, but in a divided government and electorate, it may be necessary to enact seemingly opposing concepts and let us find a center down the road. And, of course, with this administration, it’s always wise to keep in mind that a signed document is just the starting point for the next renegotiation.

  4. I honestly think Pelosi has played all of this quite well, and is one of the last people in this mess that I would criticize. For starters, Trump refuses to negotiate, so the idea of “open the government and then negotiate” is not a real possibility, because he refuses to do so without his border wall funding. Any other proposed “compromise” is also pointless because Trump is not interested in compromise, he is only interested in winning. Dealing with Trump at all is essentially a non-starter, unless the House Dems are going to completely give in to him, which would be political suicide for them, and bad for the future of this country.

    Pelosi leads a branch of government that is equal to Trump’s. And I think it’s very important that she continues to remind him of that. She does need to capitulate to him. I agree with Sam that she has taken the approach of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Trump is literally holding hostage the financial life support for millions of Americans. The only thing I’m not sure of now is, does he really care about the wall, or he purposely trying to destroy the American government and its economy? He just keeps giving gifts to Putin, and this seems the biggest gift so far.

    The attention needs to be turned to McConnell and the Senate Republicans who are allowing this unethical, destructive, dangerous nonsense to continue. The only path forward is for both branches of government to come together and overrule Trump. If there have been any missteps in this process, it’s been engaging with Trump too much, as opposed to not enough.

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