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John Feehery: ‘The Prince’ lives on

It was in 1513 that Niccolò Machiavelli first wrote The Prince, although it didn’t hit the printing presses until 1532, five years after the most infamous of political philosophers had died.

That was by design, because the Catholic Church didn’t much care for the tone of Machiavelli’s most famous work and put it on its list of banned books. 

Despite the early controversy, The Prince still lives in the heart of the modern politician. Here are some examples: 

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“It is much safer to be feared than loved because ... love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Clearly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his team understood this principle. He wasn’t going to get Garden State Democrats (and Republicans) to fall in line solely with his charm. He tried to strike fear in the hearts of those who opposed him, because that was the way to make progress on his legislative and political agenda. What is being called “Bridgegate” was a step too far, but it certainly wasn’t out of step with one of his key political strategies: to be more feared than loved.  

“The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.” 

President Obama campaigned on the idea that if you wanted to keep your healthcare plan, you could. But that was a lie born out of a political necessity to get his healthcare reform law passed. Now, millions of voters are figuring out that, no matter how the president tries to spin, it, there is a pretty good chance that no matter how much you liked your plan, you won’t be able to keep it.

 “And it will always happen that he who is not your friend will request your neutrality and he who is your friend will ask you to declare yourself by taking up arms. And irresolute princes, in order to avoid present dangers, follow the neutral road most of the time, and most of the time they are ruined.” 

This principle was born out in the fascinating story written by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen about how the Clinton political team has kept an enemies list of those “princes” who backed Obama, when they should have backed Hillary in the 2008 election. By the end, there weren’t many who were neutral, but the Clinton team reserved a special place in its hell for those who endorsed Obama at the last moment. Should Hillary ever gain the throne, they will be toast.  

“There are many who think therefore that a wise prince ought, when he has the chance, to foment astutely some enmity, so that by suppressing it he will augment his greatness.” 

Congress in general seems to be exceptionally good at creating crises that it resolves just in time, although that strategy seems to be backfiring. From the government shutdown to the debt-limit crisis, from expiring tax extenders to the never-ending Medicare “doc” fix that never quite gets fixed, Washington veers from one potential disaster to another, never quite resolving any issue to the point of actually taking it off the table. 

 “And that prince who bases his power entirely on ... words, finding himself completely without other preparations, comes to ruin.” 

For a president whose chief claim to fame was his ability to give a good speech, this is particularly true. Obama is finding, as his approval rating inches ever downward, that words don’t matter nearly as much as the ability to actually do the hard work of governing, a skill that is not quite in his wheelhouse.

“The first way to lose a state is to neglect the art of war; the first way to gain a state is to be skilled in the art of war.” 

For those who might want to support Vice President Biden in the next election, this serves as a caution flag. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates accused Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership and “stoking the President’s suspicion of the military.” How can you be skilled in the art of war if you hate the military?

 If you want to see what is happening in Washington, re-read The Prince. The names might have changed, but the lessons remain the same.

 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.