President Trump and British Prime Minister May have something in common. They consider themselves adept at what Trump has famously called “the art of the deal.”
Relying on their self-confidence, each has made a promise they could not keep. They lacked the skill to pull off promises that were, in fact, impossible to keep. They enter 2019 facing the likelihood of failure.
For Trump, it is the Wall, a forbidding structure to be built along the border with Mexico to keep out all illegal Latino immigrants. His promise to build the Wall and have the Mexicans pay for its cost was the cornerstone of his campaign and, along with tariffs, his presidency.
Trump tried to induce the Mexican president at least to say, without discussing any details, that Mexico would pay. Trump would set the hook and reel in the Mexican later. But he was talking with the proud leader of an independent country, not a New York real estate mogul, who would hardly agree to pay for the Wall.
The Wall as a barrier to immigration could not accomplish what Trump promised. Most unauthorized immigrants or asylum seekers do not enter the U.S. by illegally crossing the border. They overstay visitor visas or cross at border control points. As for Mexicans, more are returning home than entering.
Having made the political promise, Trump stuck with his commitment for the Wall. His fallback was that American taxpayers would foot the bill.
The art of Trump’s deals never reckoned with Congress. The Democrats would oppose him and some Republicans, against government spending and skeptical of the proposal, would not support it. Congress was willing to add funding for border security, but not the Wall.
Hardly the model of a savvy negotiator, Trump threw a tantrum. If you do not fund the Wall now, he threatened, I will shut down the federal government. The Democrats could accept that result, since Trump said he would take the responsibility. They would refuse him the political trophy he badly wanted for the 2020 campaign.
The Wall was an impractical and impossible promise. While it pleased some of Trump’s supporters, he was unable to negotiate successfully with either Mexico or Congress. His bullying did not work, bringing a shutdown. Does it matter whose fault that was?
Just as the Wall was the symbol of an impossible American way to keep out non-white immigrants, the United Kingdom embarked on a similar effort with similar results.
Many British disliked both the free entry of Eastern European workers and following rules made by international officials, both essential parts of the European Union. Promised that quitting the EU would save money, end immigration and allow the U.K. to recover some of its imperial glory, a narrow majority voted to leave the EU.
Without knowing what kind of deal should result, the U.K. simply served notice it would leave by March. May’s negotiator claimed that his country held all the cards, when, in fact, it had none. The biggest problem was how to handle Ireland.
The Good Friday agreement, negotiated under the leadership of Maine’s George Mitchell, had ended bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. It was helped because both independent Ireland and the Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., are members of the EU, and have no economic border. What would happen if the U.K. left the EU?
At the same time, the British learned that many campaign promises could not be kept. Leaving the EU cost the U.K. money. Foreign workers were needed, but they began moving out. Financial institutions, vital to the British economy, began to make plans to transfer to the Continent.
May tried to negotiate a compromise deal, but she was forced to accept continued EU domination to keep some of the essential benefits of membership. The EU did not want to make leaving so easy that other countries might be tempted.
Leaving the EU was a promise that cannot be kept – at least not without economic hardship. Nobody had an idea about Ireland. The alternative must boil down either to decide to remain in the EU or quit cold turkey with consequences that might even lead to renewed bloodshed.
Political promises are often made to be broken. Telling voters what they want to hear is much easier than working to produce results. It takes some courage for leaders to admit a mistake and move on to practical solutions.
Trump and May are learning that failing to understand the limits of negotiating could turn out to be the path to defeat.