Yale School of Management

Prof. Barry Nalebuff on the Shutdown: Trump Doesn’t Want a Solution

Barry Nalebuff, the Milton Steinbach Professor of Management and an expert on game theory and negotiation, appeared on CNN’s Quest Means Business on January 9 to discuss the negotiation tactics of three world leaders: China’s Xi Jinping, in trade talks with the United States; the UK’s Theresa May, as she wrestles with Parliament over Brexit; and President Donald Trump, who is in a standoff with Democrats over a border wall and the government shutdown.

Nalebuff rated Trump’s performance the worst of the three:

I had the opportunity to watch David Stern negotiate with the NBA players and the owners. And the key lesson there is to understand what the other side wants and actually to give it to them. Not because you like them, not because you want to help them, but because if you give them what they want, you can get what you want. 

And what’s startling about the U.S. situation is it’s bloody obvious what Trump wants and it’s bloody obvious what the Democrats want. You could provide a DACA solution. You could give Trump the wall. And the fact that he rejects solutions that are giving other people what looks like an obvious answer suggests to me that he actually doesn’t want a solution. He wants to keep this thing as a thorn in the side, as an open festering wound, and that’s someone you can’t negotiate with. And you can’t negotiate with somebody who says, ‘I’ll do a deal if…,’ and then the deal happens or is presented to you, and they say, ‘No, I’ve changed my mind.’

And that’s why Mitch McConnell is in a bind and that’s why ultimately we’re paralyzed. Now, it strikes me that one solution is that Congress says, ‘Wait a second. We’re going to do the two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate.’ And you do that and Trump can say, ‘Well, I wanted the wall. I was asking for it, I was insisting on it, and I got beaten upon it.’ Because the fact is if he couldn’t get it with Republican control, House, and Senate, why does he think it’s possible to get it now? I mean what has changed? You’ve got to give something.   

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