How did we get into this sorry situation? A meltdown of this magnitude typically has many causes. In this case, the president’s inability to reach some sort of deal rests heavily on several basic failures of understanding by him and his team. These include:
1. A failure to grasp how divided government works. The president somehow came to believe that he’d have more leverage once the Democrats took control of the House. Maybe someone convinced him that, after the transfer of power, he could shift blame for the impasse onto Speaker Nancy Pelosi — a favorite villain of Republicans. Or maybe he assumed that Pelosi & Company would fold in the face of the dysfunction and public outcry a shutdown would bring. Whatever the logic, Team Trump assumed Democrats would become more pliable, and a deal would emerge.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has been spoiled by two years of Congress being led by weak-kneed members of his party who, even when troubled by his excesses, largely let him run amok, lest he call down upon them the wrath of the Republican base.
But for their part, Ms. Pelosi and her new majority are concerned about presenting a united front against Mr. Trump’s challenges to constitutional authority. With the president’s wall having become a flash point, the political costs to Democrats for cutting a deal seen as advantageous to Mr. Trump would be steep.
2. A failure to understand the costs of playing only to the base. While Republican lawmakers may be awed by Mr. Trump’s command of their party’s troops, Democrats are more motivated by the fact that the bulk of the electorate is tired of the president’s divisive demagogy. Time and again, Mr. Trump has chosen partisanship over leadership, doing nothing to expand his appeal. This puts him at a disadvantage in wooing the public to his side of the wall debate.
3. A failure to understand Nancy Pelosi. Apparently, Mr. Trump never got around to reading “The Art of War,” or at least not Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know your enemy.” If he had, the president would have tried to develop at least a basic working relationship with Ms. Pelosi. The White House clearly assumed that, at some point — maybe after she secured the speaker’s gavel — Ms. Pelosi would bend to Mr. Trump’s will. But the speaker is not impressed with bluster. She is seldom cowed by political pressure from her own team, much less the opposing one. She plays the long game, and her will is as formidable as Mr. Trump’s, possibly more so. One key difference: Ms. Pelosi knows how the legislative process works.