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.