A hard bargain.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Trump Just Gave Away the Truth

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump gives away the store:

“When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va. “I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal and I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So I’ll do the debate.”

The topic in this Washington Post article is whether Trump would show up for the CNN debate on Dec. 15; he had previously talked about forcing CNN to pay him to appear, and has complained about the network's coverage of him.

Trump is admitting here that leverage -- the influence that comes from the facts of a situation -- matters more in most cases than negotiating skill.

Yet his entire campaign has rested on the claim that bargaining ability is the skill a president needs most. Trump boasted he would manipulate Mexico into paying for his big wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also says that Barack Obama and other presidents have been out-bargained by every other nation, from Mexico to China, on trade agreements. And the big problem with the Iran nuclear deal is the result of Obama’s poor negotiation skills.

So for Trump to use “leverage” as an excuse in this case undermines the basis of this campaign.

Bargaining skill is important to presidents, no doubt, and they can use it to create leverage. Richard Neustadt’s classic study, "Presidential Power," is all about how commanders in chief should use all their powers -- whether created by the Constitution, legislation or the norms of the political culture -- to pile up bargaining chips to create leverage over those they work with. 

But this works only within fairly narrow parameters.

No president is going to persuade (most) Democrats to abandon Planned Parenthood. No president is going to persuade (most) Republicans to abandon the National Rifle Association. No president is going to defeat Islamic State, or dislodge Russia from Crimea or get Mexico to pay for a border wall just because he or she has world-class bargaining skills.

Trump’s entire theory of the presidency, in other words, is a fantasy. And we have now learned that he knows it.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net