All-American Deal-Making

No one expected Donald Trump to be America’s president – not even Donald Trump, by all accounts. He was a real estate billionaire who got out of real estate and into branding – selling the right to use his name on other people’s projects, and then on shirts and ties and vodka and that scam university and all the rest. Then he was a reality show star – the guy who fired “losers” and walked away. He was crass and shallow. He had no deep thoughts about public policy or international relations, and what he knew of the military come from old movies and his high school years at that military academy. What he knew of current events came from Fox News and Breitbart and the National Inquirer – and Entertainment Tonight of course. He had never held office – no experience there. He had never served in the military – no experience there. He had no management experience – others ran his businesses for him. He set things up. He made the deals and closed the deals, and moved on to the next deal. The dull business of running day-to-day operations seemed to bore him, but that’s what the presidency is all about. It’s one damned thing after other. There are a thousand details to everything and there’s no way to hand all that off to some overpaid flunky and move on. The president is stuck with each particular mess. That’s no fun. The president is no more than the head of the administrative branch of the government, and the administration of laws made by others is a dull business – but that’s the job. This isn’t the reality show. The president cannot “fire” Congress or the Supreme Court if he thinks that they’re stupid losers. This is not his show. This seemed like a bad fit.

But there was something about Donald Trump. He wrote The Art of the Deal – sort of. Tony Schwartz actually wrote the thing for him. Random House says Trump didn’t write one word of it, and Schwartz now regrets the whole thing. Schwartz says the title should have been The Sociopath. He listened to the guy for almost a year, taking notes. He knows – but the book was a phenomenal bestseller, and now Trump is president.

That makes sense. America likes deal-makers. This guy lost it all in Atlantic City – multiple bankruptcies with those casinos – and came out smelling like a rose. There may have been mob money involved, but Trump came back, richer than ever. The same thing happened in Manhattan, but Trump roared back again – perhaps with massive funding from assorted Russian oligarchs – Putin’s posse – but he did come roaring back. Just enough voters, in just the right places, found that impressive. America could come roaring back. Don’t worry about the shady funding. Putin’s posse is fine. No more Muslims. No more Mexicans. Make the deal.

That worked. Americans are deal-makers. Americans love that. Americans love street markets abroad and garage sales at home. They love being able to talk down the price of whatever it is, with elaborate theatrics. You can pretend to be insulted by the high initial price and the shoddy quality of the goods, or offer an impressive sob-story about just not having that kind of money right now – something about a sick mother or having just lost your job, with big tears if you can manage that. You can also try to insult and shame the vendor, or even better, suggest you’re both insiders – you’re both shrewd and cool people, not like everyone else in this miserable crowd – and you both know that florescent painting of Jesus on black velvet is pretty much worthless, but you’ll take it off the guy’s hands for a few bucks so he can move on and find a real sucker, and then offer to point out a few for him. That’s the art of the deal.

The variations are endless, as are the variations open to the seller of the crap in question. The item is really unique and rare, really it is, and because he or she kind of likes you they’ll offer it to you, and you alone, at a special price. Appeals to ego always work, as does talk about how everyone has one of these and you surely don’t want to be the only person who doesn’t have one. Insecurity and shame can work wonders – all it takes is getting one whiff of the buyer’s thinly disguised core self-loathing. The seller can also offer a matching sob-story, about how they really have to sell the velvet Jesus at that price, because of their own sick mother or having just lost their job, with their own big tears if they can manage that. That can cut both ways – but in the end someone’s going to get screwed and someone’s going to gloat about having found another real sucker, while counting their money alone in the shade. That’s also the art of the deal.

It almost goes without saying that the item in question is some bit of useless crap – the seller didn’t want it around anymore and the buyer didn’t really want it in the first place. The whole thing is essentially a winner-take-all game, where what you win is the satisfaction of humiliating that other person who thought they were so smart. This was never about that velvet Jesus at all. This was about dominance and humiliation, and what you win in this game is the indisputable right to sneer and gloat. It’s heady stuff. That’s Trump stuff.

Everyone loves this game and it could be said that the American economy, and all of American culture, is built on the notion of all of us selling useless crap to each other and sneering at the fools who bought the three hundred dollar sneakers or the twenty dollar cup of weak coffee, or, a few years ago, that amazing mortgage with monthly payments of next to nothing for years and years and years – well, two or three years. We are a country of hustlers and slick salesmen, and we love that about ourselves. We get what we want and we want to stick it to the other guy.

On the other hand there are those perverse few who figure out what they want or what they need at the moment, look at the price, decide that it’s fair, or close enough, and then simply plunk their money down. Yes, there are people who don’t like haggling, as un-American as that seems. They find the intense process of negotiating a “great deal” tedious and stupid. Look at the price. Buy it or not. They’re Democrats, generally, and no fun at all, and they also undermine the whole idea of free-market capitalism. The intense process of negotiating a “great deal” is what life is all about after all. And after all, the Invisible Hand of Competition will drive down prices and drive up quality and assure no one will really get screwed-over too badly – Adam Smith said so. Karl Marx disagreed.

That’s the art of the deal. Try to buy a car. There’s the sticker price on the window, but that means little. There’s what they’ll offer you for your old beat up car, but that also means little. You have to haggle, and then you work out a price – a lump sum or what you’ll be paying monthly for them to take your old car and give you a new one – and then the salesman will tell you he has to have his sales manager approve the deal. That’s when the good-cop bad-cop business begins, because the salesman eventually returns and tells you his sales manager can’t let the new car go at anything like that price.

Now the pressure is on you, and yes, you know there was no sales manager and the guy just went out back for a smoke – but you lost any leverage. You agree to pay more. Or you walk out – but if you try to walk out the salesman will tug at your sleeve and the whole process with the phantom sales manager will begin again, with the salesman saying he’s really putting his job on the line for you now. You’re supposed to feel grateful and more than a little guilty, which will make you pay more of course. And then you find yourself in a death spiral of elaborate theatrics, and you know someone is going to get screwed over – probably you. The whole business of trying to buy a new car can suck what’s left of your soul right out of you, although there are some people who love every minute of this sort of thing. You find them at garage sales every weekend. Everyone understands the art of the deal.

Donald Trump understands the art of the deal better than most. Now he’s saying last chance, take the deal or he moves onto other things and you’ll feel like a stupid loser. That was today’s general idea:

President Trump delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans on Thursday night: Vote to approve the measure to overhaul the nation’s health-care system on the House floor Friday, or reject it and the president will move on to his other legislative priorities.

Do you really want to be left behind, looking stupid, while he moves on to other big and impressive stuff? The art of the deal often involves shaming the potential buyer, but that can backfire:

The president, through his aides in a closed-door meeting, signaled that the time for negotiations was over with rank-and-file Republicans who were meeting late at night on Capitol Hill to try to find common ground on the embattled package crafted by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

The move was a high-risk gamble for the president and the speaker, who have invested significant political capital in passing legislation that would replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act. For Trump, who campaigned as a skilled negotiator capable of forging a good deal on behalf of Americans, it could either vindicate or undercut one of his signature claims. If the measure fails, it would be a defeat for Trump in his first effort to help pass major legislation and it may also jeopardize other items on his wish list, including a tax overhaul and infrastructure spending.

Defeat would also mean that Obamacare – something that congressional Republicans have railed against for seven years – would remain in place.

Someone is going to be shamed and humiliated. Trump is betting it won’t be him, but that’s an odd bet:

It was far from clear that Ryan and Trump have the votes to muscle the package through the House after several members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus refused to back it following a marathon session of negotiations Thursday with Trump and other top aides.

Post-meeting, a handful of Republicans announced they would back the legislation. But a larger number said they were still opposed or had yet to make up their minds.

“For seven and a half years we have been promising the American people that we will repeal and replace this broken law, because it’s collapsing and it’s failing families,” Ryan said. “And tomorrow we’re proceeding.”

But the speaker refused to answer shouted questions from reporters after the meeting about whether he had the votes for passage.

It was obviously time to crank up the shame and humiliation:

In the meeting with House Republicans on Thursday night, according to Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told his former colleagues “the president needs this; the president has said he wants a vote tomorrow up or down.”

“If for any reason it’s down, we’re just going to move forward with additional parts of his agenda,” Collins described Mulvaney as saying. “This is our moment in time.”

In short, stand with your president, as you should, or be left in the dust, and there were the usual elaborate theatrics:

A key moment inside the session, several lawmakers said, was when Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a freshman lawmaker who lost both his legs in 2010 while serving as an Army bomb disposal technician in Afghanistan, rose and called on his colleagues to unite behind the bill in the same way he and his comrades fought in battle.

And this:

A rowdy group of Republicans burst out of the meeting like explorers on a quest for glory. “Burn the ships,” one Republican shouted to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), invoking the command that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, gave his men upon landing in Mexico in 1519.

The message was clear, to the GOP leaders now and the Spaniards in 1519, there was no turning back.

And this:

Leaders continued to plead with individual lawmakers to support the measure well into Thursday night, with the House Rules Committee slated to meet early Friday morning to consider the proposed changes.

Ryan got down on a knee to plead with Rep. Don Young, an 83-year-old from Alaska who is the longest-serving Republican in Congress and remains undecided.

When the speaker finished with Young, he spent about 10 minutes in an animated discussion with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of the bill’s most outspoken critics. At one point, the speaker took his own arms and held them up, his hands at face level, then slowly lowered them to his waist – presumably trying to demonstrate his belief that the bill will lower costs.

Cool, but the problem was the product:

Ryan had intended to bring up his plan for a vote Thursday. But criticism – mainly from conservatives – caused that strategy to unravel after Freedom Caucus members rejected Trump’s offer to strip a key set of mandates from the nation’s current health-care law. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon trooped up to Ryan’s office to make the case personally, warning recalcitrant conservatives that the only alternative would be to accept the ACA as the law of the land.

By evening, leaders adopted the proposed change conservatives had rebuffed earlier, eliminating the law’s “essential benefits” insurers must offer under the ACA in an effort to reduce premium costs. Those benefits include covering mental-health treatment, wellness visits, and maternity and newborn care, and states would have the option of adding them back next year.

This means that a health insurer could sell you a policy that didn’t cover doctor visits, hospital visits, ER visits, your children’s health care, or prescription drugs – that would be perfectly legal – and charge you big bucks if you want that other stuff. Effective health insurance would suddenly get extremely expensive. Junk policies would be cheap, and useless. That’s the plan, but there was this:

They also added one sweetener for moderates, a six-year delay in repealing a 0.9 percent additional Medicare tax on high-income Americans who earn above $200,000 if filing individually, or $250,000 if married and filing jointly. By keeping the tax in place, GOP leaders could provide an additional $15 billion to the states to help cover treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as maternity and infant care.

Meanwhile, a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office released Thursday evening showed that changes House leaders made to the bill Monday do not alter a projection that 24 million more Americans would be uninsured by 2026 under the bill. In addition, the updated bill would cut the deficit by $150 billion over the next decade – nearly $200 billion less than the earlier version of the legislation.

So, do you want to buy a florescent painting of Jesus on black velvet? This is as worthless, but expected:

Democrats relished the GOP’s predicament. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who had scheduled a 4 p.m. rally against the bill, turned it into a short-term declaration of victory.

“Remember, they wanted to have their repeal and replace ready when Trump was inaugurated,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “Now, here we are – they don’t have it, again. They’re looking for a sweet spot, and they won’t find one.”

Trump may know that. Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman report this:

President Trump, the author of “The Art of the Deal,” has been projecting his usual bravado in public this week about the prospects of repealing the Affordable Care Act. Privately he is grappling with rare bouts of self-doubt.

Mr. Trump has told four people close to him that he regrets going along with Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s plan to push a health care overhaul before unveiling a tax cut proposal more politically palatable to Republicans.

He said ruefully this week that he should have done tax reform first when it became clear that the quick-hit health care victory he had hoped for was not going to materialize on Thursday, the seventh anniversary of the act’s passage, when the legislation was scheduled for a vote.

Two of his most influential advisers – Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, and Gary D. Cohn, the National Economic Council director, who had a major role in pushing the bill – came to agree, and did not like the compromise that was emerging.

That may have been the reason for the now-or-never ultimatum, and because Trump finally may understand his new job:

Crashing on the shoals of Congress marks Mr. Trump’s first true encounter with legislative realities and the realization that a president’s power is less limitless than it appears, particularly in the face of an intransigent voting bloc. Mr. Trump is not used to a hard no – but that was the word of the week.

But he could bounce back:

If Mr. Trump has any advantage in the negotiations, it is his ideological flexibility: He is more interested in a win, or avoiding a loss, than any of the arcane policy specifics of the complicated measure, according to a dozen aides and allies interviewed over the past week who described his mood as impatient and jittery. Already, he has shown that flexibility by going back on campaign promises that no one would lose coverage when the Affordable Care Act was replaced and he would not cut Medicaid.

He just doesn’t care about this stuff:

To Mr. Trump and his team, the health care repeal is a troublesome stepchild. His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who is vacationing with his family in Aspen this week, has said for days that the bill was a mistake to support. Yet Mr. Trump wants to fulfill his party’s pledge to roll back President Obama’s signature accomplishment, but only as a prelude to building his wall, cutting taxes and pushing his $1 trillion infrastructure package.

This healthcare crap is just getting in the way of the good stuff. It may be life and death to tens of millions of American, but it’s boring and too damned complicated, and someone else’s problem:

Staff members agreed on a hasty rollout strategy during weekend meetings earlier this month – with Vice President Pence suggesting that the president maintain distance from the proposal, urging him to refer to the bill as Mr. Ryan’s creation, according to senior Republicans.

In fact, Trump had already walked away:

Mr. Trump appeared almost oblivious to the dire situation unfolding in the hours after he hosted a meeting with members of the House Freedom Caucus at the White House, where he made the case that not passing the health bill risks the rest of the Republican agenda.

In the midafternoon, a beaming Mr. Trump climbed into the rig of a black tractor-trailer, which had been driven to the White House for an event with trucking industry executives, honking the horn and posing for a series of tough-guy photos – one with his fists held aloft, another staring straight ahead, hands gripping the large wheel, his face compressed into an excited scream.

At a meeting inside shortly afterward, Mr. Trump announced that he was pressed for time and needed to go make calls for more votes.

A reporter informed him that the vote had already been called off.

Well, whatever. The whole thing was a loser:

A majority of American voters oppose the Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare, while very few voters support it, a new poll finds.

A poll published Thursday by Quinnipiac University found that 56 percent of voters disapprove of the GOP healthcare plan, while just 17 percent support it.

Even among Republicans, only 41 percent support the American Health Care Act, while 24 percent oppose it. And 58 percent of Democratic voters disapprove of the plan.

No one wants to buy this particular tacky florescent painting of Jesus on black velvet. It’s no more than that. Trump is waking away from this deal. The most American of American poets, Robert Frost, put it this way – “Take care to sell your horse before he dies. The art of life is passing losses on.”

Donald Trump understands the art of the deal better than most.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to All-American Deal-Making

  1. Rick says:

    One problem with having someone ghost your best-selling book about how good you are at making deals is that you end up spending the rest of your life playing the “other people’s expectations” game, since everybody is left with the impression that you are a whiz at making deals, even if you aren’t really, and that leaves you trying to live up to your own hype.

    Having your reputation precede you wherever you go can, I guess, be great for your ego, but I would think it could also cramp your style.

    One of my last duties at CNN was to represent the satellite needs of the network pool on President Reagan’s one-day visit to the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France, in the summer of 1985, starting with my own advance trip to Paris in the spring.

    I found myself sitting in a meeting hall with just me and Francoise Husson, CNN’s French-born former London Bureau Chief who was serving as my translator, on one side of the table, and about forty representatives from the EU Parliament and various French entities, mostly of the government and TV networks, the telephone company and power company and whatnot, on the other. Through Francoise, I informed them of what we would be needing and when we would be needing it, and after about ten minutes of anguished (and, to me, incomprehensible) French words exchanged among themselves, they came back to let me know why they wouldn’t be able to deliver the workspace in the Parliament building, or the power, or the phone lines, or the security, at least not in time for the event in June.

    To which I shrugged my shoulders and replied that I understood the problems (I lied), thanked them in advance for their efforts and suggested that all we all can do is do what we can, and hope for the best.

    With that, the meeting was over, and Francoise and I went out to dinner, at which time she told me that what I said to them seemed to baffle them, since, me being an American, they expected a whole lot of that hard bargaining that we Americans are famous around the world for. In fact, she thought they were pleased with the lack of fuss. After all, Americans are also famous for skipping all the jibber-jabber, cutting through all the ceremony, and just getting to the point, one of our famous foibles that is sometimes actually appreciated overseas.

    In any event, the next day, I flew home. Over the next month, bit by bit, I learned that I was receiving even more than I had asked for, and way ahead of schedule. That June, back in France, Reagan’s visit came and went with nary a hitch. The French were wonderful to work with. Sometimes, the best bargaining is no bargaining at all, especially if nobody involved in it is in the mood for any of that foolishness anyway.

    Unfortunately for Trump, his reputation, undeserved as it might be, precedes him. One of my old bosses who was famous throughout broadcasting for his haggling skills, had that same problem. It was often said of him, “He knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Word got around, and eventually, everyone saw him coming, and — well, there’s that old saying about those who are forewarned are forearmed.

    In fact, if everyone suspects that Donald Trump cares more about his precious image than the details of any one deal he’s working on, the deal will suck in ways he probably won’t even recognize, assuming it ever gets closed at all, or else his deal may just implode, which has happened more than once to…

    Hold the phone! BREAKING NEWS!! This just in!!! As I am writing this, waiting for the voting in the House to begin, word arrives that, instead of voting, they’ve withdrawn the bill!

    At first, I thought this meant they postponed it, which is what I had been predicting would happen, but it’s even better than that! Our long national nightmare appears to be over, sort of.

    And it seems that Trump has already started doing what, early on, he himself promised to do if the vote failed — he’ll start blaming it on the Democrats and Obama! So, in truth, Sean “Slick” Spicer was wrong when he told reporters there was no back-up plan:

    Spicer told reporters during a daily press briefing that there is no back-up plan for the American Health Care Act … because the bill would pass.

    “No, there is no plan B,” said Spicer. “There is a plan A, and plan A. We’re going to get this done. We’re going to get it done, that’s it, plain and simple.”

    During a recent meeting, Trump told conservative groups that are against the bill that his plan B was to allow Obamacare, officially named the Affordable Care Act, to “collapse” and then blame Democrats for any negative outcomes.

    Hey, good luck with that! And thanks for the heads-up.

    Of course there’s a “Plan B”! We’ve just entered it. Trump planned for this and warned us it was coming, that in the event of failure, he would somehow blame it on the Democrats, I guess for not voting for Trumpcare.

    Which is preposterous, of course.

    Weren’t they saying through all those years that they would repeal Obamacare in the first five minutes of Day One, once they were able to get one of their own guys into the Oval Office? That didn’t happen, but it wasn’t because of the Democrats, who, yes, were prepared to cast exactly as many “Yes” votes for Trumpcare as Republicans cast for Obamacare, way back when.

    The difference between the two votes was that Obama himself turned out to be a more-successful wheeler-dealer than Mr. King of the Big Deal himself. Surprise!

    Repeal, which once seemed like a surefire thing back in Republican Dreamland, before the inauguration, back when the moderate “Tuesday Group” was dreaming of “Repeal and Replace”, while, seemingly unbeknownst to anyone, the take-no-prisoners “Freedom Fries Caucus” was envisioning only the “Repeal” part.

    That doesn’t sound like a big thing, but it turned out to be quite a deal-breaker. It was the fact that the distance between the two extremities of the GOP is too great to allow consensus on any one bill that queered this deal, and had nothing to with whatever the Democrats were doing at the time — which, of course, was that they were probably quietly watching all the Republican shenanigans with bemusement.

    And yes, I suppose we could blame the Democrats for not barging down to the Oval Office to pitch their own healthcare plan, which is known as “Obamacare” — which has already been proven to be popular with a plurality of Americans who have said they’d rather see it changed than repealed — and which could also be called “Obamacare: New and Improved”, including within it all those upgrades that Barrack Obama was referencing the other day, when he talked about always envisioning the program being improved upon as we went along.

    But then, in that same vein, I guess Trump can blame himself for not inviting Democratic input (in which case, I think there’s a chance he could have won!), instead of placing all his faith in all those hopeless congressional Republicans, who have, after years of practice, demonstrated that they still can’t organize a one-car funeral.

    But think of it! This may be the closest we ever get to a face-to-face contest between Trump and Obama, and after all that negotiating, look who’s healthcare version ended up as “the Law of the Land!”

    Rick

  2. Ret MP says:

    I so appreciate your summaries and wit. Thanks for continuing to bring the details to your page. And a lovely sense of humor, in a humorless time. -Ret

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