CNBC Television / YouTube Watch President Trump 39 s wide 1546802853.jpg...
CNBC Television / YouTube

In any negotiation, the first question you have to ask is, what’s your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA)? Your BATNA is basically what happens if negotiation fails. What’s your worst-case scenario? Your BATNA determines the strength of your negotiating position.

A recent NY Times editorial claimed that Trump is turning to his 2016 campaign strategy, playing to his base, and deliberately shutting down the government to try to get what he wants:

There is no vow that defined Mr. Trump’s campaign more than his promise to build a border wall. If he is going to enter the campaign in the embarrassing position of not having fulfilled that pledge, at the very minimum he’s going to have to show that he exhausted every option at his disposal and fought for the wall tooth and nail. A high-profile government shutdown battle is a way to accomplish that.

I think much of this is correct. His base loves it when he fights. If you look at Trump’s BATNA and the Democratic BATNA, it may be a reasonable bet unless we’re prepared to see the fight for what it really is: A media shitshow.

Trump’s BATNA

You would think Trump faces a bad deal if the government shuts down because he literally said he’d take responsibility for it:

Yet this isn’t the case with his base. His base can easily accept him lying to the liberals because this is what they believe you’re supposed to do. You lie to the liberals. You troll them. That’s how you beat them.

Trump’s base doesn’t care. If Fox News or Breitbart or Trump himself turns around and says it’s the fault of the Democratic Party, they’ll believe him.

His wealthy base doesn’t believe they need the government. His non-wealthy base will only see media blaming the Democratic Party. His base has also bought into conservative ideology that “government is bad” and that we should be working to try to destroy it in favor of some kind of “private sector” feudalism that none of them can really describe.

When Trump says furloughed government workers are “Democrats” what he means is that he doesn’t believe they add any value to the country. In conservative ideology, government is a cost center drag or burden on the private sector. In other words, in the case of a government shutdown, Trump doesn’t care. He believes his base will back him. The only question is, how far?

I think Trump feels that, given the Mueller investigation, now is the time to attack. Now is the time to find out.

The Democratic BATNA

The Democrats have to fight too. They just won Congress partly on a “checks and balances” agenda. Giving Trump a significant victory after the recent election would be viewed as capitulation. They have to fight. They also see polls showing that 42 percent of people currently blame President Trump for any government shutdown.

If the government stays shut down though, it’s likely conservative media will start ramping up the blame attacks and we’ll start to hear, “Is it worth the pain for an additional $3 billion in border funding?” It’s likely that we’ll see a major advertising blitz against the Democratic Party that I don’t know if Democrats are able to match.

Already, some of the attempts by Democrats to blame this on Republicans look clumsy and not thought through.

By claiming the Republicans are taking government hostage, Schumer plays into their narrative that Republicans are willing to fight for what they want. What is it Democrats are willing to fight for? What principle?

To all appearances, it just looks like they’re saying “No.” Trump is fighting for a wall. For border security. While Democrats are saying “No.” This is how the media is already portraying the situation. My guess is that the above polling is not going to hold up long if the conservative megaphone starts bleating loudly. This is Trump’s bet. I think he and Republicans are betting that they can win the media and public opinion war.

How to win the media war

To win the public perception war, it has to be clear what the Democratic Party is fighting for. If they are against the wall, there has to be a clear reason why. Right now, it’s “nothing for the wall.” In this framing, the Democrats stand for nothing. It’s not clear what they’re fighting for. If this is the case, they’re set up to lose the public opinion fight. Eventually people are going to start asking, “Are they really keeping the government shut down over $3 billion in wall funding?” In government terms, this is a ridiculously small amount of money. So the first option is, stand firm on a principle. To do this, the Democratic Party is going to have to work much harder on what this principle is.

The second option is to use Trump’s “Art of the Deal” against him. Trump only has one negotiation trick. His trick is, if he wants $15, ask for $20. Make what he wants look like some kind of “deal.” The way to do this in the media is to set up how checks and balances work. The Democratic Party just won Congress. The way government works is compromise. What are Trump and Republicans willing to compromise on?

Then, ask for something big. Ask for Trump to fully fix legal immigration, for example. Grant DACA. Stop going after legal immigrants. Grant legal asylum requests. Allow 1 million new refugees into the country every year legally (I’m just picking a number here). You could even ask bigger. You could ask for all the fixes to legal immigration and then ask for him/Republicans to fully fund a Medicare for All program.

Trump and Republicans aren’t going to support these things. Setting it up this way, however, does a couple things. Most importantly, you’re not just saying “No.” It’s clear what you’re fighting for because you’re asking for it. Secondly, it puts the onus back on Trump and Republicans. You want a deal? What are you willing to compromise on? Of course the answer is nothing. That needs to be the headline: “Republicans say ‘No’ to deal.”

Right now, the deal on the table is Republicans get the wall or they keep the government shut down. They’re doing this because they believe they can win the public opinion war. The way things stand, they might be right.

If we want to change this, it has to be clear what principle we’re standing on when we say “no” to the wall or, we should be asking for big things on our agenda. Either way, our fight needs to be clear, principled, and center stage.


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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


  1. To win the public perception war, it has to be clear what the Democratic Party is fighting for.

    WTF, it is a colossal waste of money, it is not needed, it would not help, AND the stupid moronic idiot doesn’t even care, he just wants to play to his base of stupid moronic idiots!


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