President Trump has to be frustrated.
Last year, 45 Senate Democrats voted for a bill that provided $25 billion for a border wall, in exchange for providing a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. undocumented as children. President Trump rejected that deal, calling it a “giant amnesty.”
The deal the president agreed to this week to avert a second government shutdown allocated just $1.4 billion for a border fence, not enough to make much progress. And he has now declared a national emergency in order to fund more of the long-promised wall. A court challenge to his declaration is a near-certainty.
During his press conference announcing the national emergency, President Trump said, “I would like to see major immigration reform, and maybe that’s something we can all work on.” If President Trump is truly interested in forging a real immigration deal anytime in the next two years, or just wants a better solution than a national emergency, I hope he will consider the ancient parable of the Long Spoons.
A man asks an angel for a preview of heaven and hell. The angel takes the man to a banquet full of delicious food but the people are starving because they each have three-foot-long spoons strapped to their arms and can’t get food in their mouths. This is hell. Then the angel takes the man to visit a similar banquet with one difference: everyone is full and happy because they are using the spoons to feed one another. This is heaven; and Washington has never seemed so far away from it.
Trump says, “deals are my art form,” but he’s repeatedly failed to strike deals with Congress, especially on immigration, for a simple reason: He thinks every deal requires a victor and a vanquished. He can’t imagine a win-win deal where both sides feed the other, once saying his approach to negotiation is, “It’s give and take. But it’s gotta mostly be take.”
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Trump probably thinks this attitude will continue to serve him well because he always had the option to walk away from the table during his business career. If his brinkmanship, hyperbole and histrionics didn’t get him what he wanted from a developer, a contractor or a bank, he could go searching for another deal partner.
But in Washington, partners are more defined and roles more established. There is but one table and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is sitting on the other side of it for the next two years holding the purse strings. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not about to step into the middle of this food fight.
Transactional leadership needs mutual benefit
Forty years ago, the political scientist James McGregor Burns described two distinct leadership styles in presidents: transformational (think FDR and Reagan) and transactional (think LBJ). President Trump is quite obviously the latter. Real estate is a transactional business, Trump was very good at it, and no one should expect him to fundamentally change his stripes.
But transactional leadership can work if the practitioner recognizes when the Long Spoons are needed and the necessity of mutual benefit in a particular negotiation.
President Lyndon Johnson was described by his biographer Robert Caro as “a mixture of bootlicker and bully.” He was crude, egotistical, ruthless and even accused of stealing his 1948 Senate election. And yet, Johnson also had an exquisite understanding of what it took to persuade. Hubert Humphrey remarked that Johnson “knew how to appeal to every single senator and how to win them over.”
Johnson’s approach worked. He signed into law the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Medicare in 1965, with large enough majorities supporting him that these bills became the law of the land unquestionably, even though many legislators began the negotiations on each bill implacably opposed to him.
It’s naïve to expect a similar turn of events now. But it is possible — and essential — for President Trump, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats to change their negotiating posture from one of mutual and escalating antagonism to mutual benefit.
A tangible legislative achievement is possible
Since late last year, the negotiations to avert one shutdown, and now avert the threat of a second one, have followed a tired and familiar script:
President Trump: “I want a border wall.”
Nancy Pelosi: “You can’t have a border wall.”
Recriminations follow. Rinse and repeat.
If what both sides of this debate want most is to destroy one another at the expense of the public good, then there really is no way out. But if what they most want is a tangible legislative achievement, it is there for the taking.
Democrats have lately taken to calling President Trump’s border wall “immoral.” But just a year ago, they were willing to fund it – even if they didn’t like it – if President Trump would go big on the Dreamers.
To date, President Trump has only been willing to offer temporary extensions to the 800,000 Dreamers in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) implemented under President Obama.
So Mr. President, here’s an idea. Harness the wisdom of the long spoons. Let the kids stay by offering Democrats a path to citizenship for law-abiding Dreamers in exchange for real money for the wall. Dreamers, on average, came to this country when they were six; America is the only home most of them have ever known — 97 percent of them are working or in school and 900 of them are serving in our military. The immigration restrictionists on the right won’t like a Dreamer deal, but as poll after poll shows, the vast majority of the American people will be with you.
A Dreamers-for-border-security deal might not get us to heaven. But after the political hell Americans have been enduring, most of us will at least see it as a path away from purgatory.
Andrew Tisch is the co-chairman of Loews Corporation and a cofounder of the national political reform group No Labels.