Know your power: Why Nancy Pelosi is outsmarting Donald Trump on COVID relief

The White House would pretty please like to do a coronavirus deal with Nancy Pelosi after Trump publicly walked away from talks last week.

Donald Trump announced on October 6 that his administration was abandoning COVID-19 stimulus talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and he instructed his lieutenants in the Senate to focus instead on rushing through the confirmation of Judge Amy Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election. Pelosi was too unreasonable, Trump said, by demanding $2.4 trillion (even though the House passed a package priced at $2.2 trillion), and $1.6 trillion was as high as he was willing to go.

The move was emblematic of a Trump's 'negotiating' tactic, one in which he pretends to grab his marbles and go home in hopes that the other side - which he believes really wants a deal with him - will accede to his demands rather than get nothing at all. The strategy appears to be the reverse-engineering of one of the "winning negotiation tactics" from his book Art of the Deal, in which Trump writes, "The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead."

And so in order to not seem desperate to make a deal with Speaker Pelosi, Trump made a whole public show of walking away from the negotiations, attempting to demonstrate that he was not the one with the most to lose.

That may have worked for him in certain limited ways in business where he had all the leverage, but despite Trump's refusal to acknowledge it, the legislative reality is that in Congressional negotiations he - or his party - is not the only one holding the cards. Especially when the party opposite holds the levers of power in the House, there is more parity of power when it comes to spending legislation than Trump would care to admit.

But just because he won't admit it doesn't mean the laws of legislative reality don't apply or that Nancy Pelosi isn't an absolute maestro at wielding her power. Unlike Trump's business experience, his political opposition did not quickly concede to him once they saw him grab his marbles. The Speaker instead announced her disappointment with Trump and her willingness to continue negotiating without capitulation. Instead of having Trump's intended effect of scoring a deal on his terms, Trump's public boasting sent the stock market tumbling, and with the stock market being the only economic metric Trump cares about, he was left flapping aimlessly on Twitter about piecemeal approaches to COVID relief within hours of abandoning the negotiations.

Speaker Pelosi, of course, knew at that moment she had Trump in her sights because of his own stupidity. What Donald Trump doesn't understand about government - and Nancy Pelosi does - is that unlike a business negotiation where the two sides negotiating only have to think about their own balance sheets, legislative sausage-making impacts people, and in a crisis in the middle of an election, the people will punish whichever side walks away. Pressing her advantage, the Speaker announced that House Democrats would not accept a piecemeal approach and were willing to negotiate only the pieces of a comprehensive package.

And on Friday, the same White House that walked away because Pelosi wouldn't agree to $1.6 trillion topline number was back, hat in hand, negotiating against itself and raising their ask to $1.8 trillion without any corresponding concession from the Speaker. If you read between the lines, the White House is really willing to go to $2 trillion. The offer presented to the Speaker by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also makes another important concession: aid for states and municipalities, a top priority for Speaker Pelosi and something Trump and Congressional Republicans had previously strenuously objected to as 'bailout for blue states', though the amount they are offering is not up to snuff for the Speaker yet.

But now, even as the Trump White House comes to heels over COVID relief, Republicans in Congress are revolting. Smelling a Democratic president in the near future, Senate Republicans suddenly care about spending again, which they also view as a way to abandon Trump's sinking ship without angering too many conservatives in their own party. Senate Republicans tore into administration officials on a call on Saturday for what they view as conceding to Speaker Pelosi - one of their favorite boogeymen - something they said would "deflate" the GOP base and end the Republican majority in the Senate.

Pelosi wants to get a relief package done, as do all Democrats, even this short a time away from the election, and even if it benefits Trump with a big package passing weeks or even days before the final day of the election. But Republicans in Congress and the White House seem determined to sabotage their own political good along with economic relief for Americans.

Politically, Nancy Pelosi wins either way. Either the Republicans concede and she gets the vast majority of what she wants and forces Mitch McConnell to make the Republican senate vote on it over the objection of what appears to be a good majority of his own caucus and risk deflating their own base, or Republicans fail to deliver a coronavirus relief package, preserving the image that Trump led them to walk away.

In an economic crisis, more help generally beats less help, more comprehensive packages generally outshine piecemeal approaches, and the side seen as always willing to come to the table beats the side that doesn't care enough about their constituents to keep working until a deal is reached.

Nancy Pelosi knew that. Donald Trump didn't. That's why she's winning.

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