Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that a ruler should seek to be both loved and feared – but if a prince must choose one, he should opt for fear.
President Trump has managed the opposite: Among Republicans in Congress, he is neither loved nor feared. Instead, at least when it comes to legislation, he’s made himself almost irrelevant.
Last week, Trump called GOP holdouts to the White House to demand their support for their party’s healthcare bill, a traditional exercise of presidential muscle. None switched sides; they saw nothing to be afraid of.
Before that, a pro-Trump group announced it would run attack ads against Dean Heller, a GOP senator from Nevada who had the temerity to denounce the Trumpcare bill’s deep cuts in Medicaid. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, told Trump to stop the negative campaign.
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Heller was afraid of Nevada voters, not the White House.
When a similar bill was in trouble in the House, Trump warned conservative hard-liners that they’d lose their seats if they didn’t vote yes. They ignored the threat, voted no – and Trump promptly caved, supporting the changes they sought.
No Republican dissident has been punished for straying from the White House. If anything, they’ve been rewarded.
So much for fear. What about love?
Since he came to the White House, Trump hasn’t enlarged the number of voters who support him; he’s reduced it. His job approval rating has slumped to about 40 percent and stayed there.
He’s still backed by more than 80 percent of Republicans, and that should count for something. But he hasn’t even mobilized his own base to help the health care bill.
The president is often described as a “master salesman,” but he’s not using his talents much. He’s given no Oval Office speech telling Americans why they should embrace this health care bill, made no presidential tour to tout its advantages.
The bill isn’t in its final form, which makes it hard to sell the details. But Trump hasn’t done much to promote its premises. That’s one reason even Republican voters aren’t sure they support it, according to recent polls.
When the president spoke at a rally in Iowa last month, he barely mentioned healthcare – and instead of talking the bill up, he suggested he still wasn’t happy with it. “Add some money to it!” he said.
Trump hasn’t done much to build amicable bonds of loyalty with GOP members of Congress, either.
In a recent television interview, Trump criticized the House bill he had earlier praised, calling it “mean.” The message to members of Congress was jarring: I want you to cast a vote that could risk your career, but don’t expect me to protect you from the consequences.
And on Friday, Trump undercut his chief negotiator, McConnell, by suggesting it might be time to throw in the towel.
“If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!” he tweeted in apparent frustration.
That’s exactly what conservative holdouts would like – but it wasn’t the solution McConnell was laboring for.
Part of the problem is that Trump often appears unaware of the content of his own party’s legislation. According to one report, he didn’t seem to realize the healthcare bill looks to many voters like a giant tax cut for the wealthy.
That makes it harder for him to be an effective salesman, in public or in private. When he does talk about the legislation, he describes it breezily as “great healthcare,” providing better insurance at a lower price. That’s a promise the bill, with its massive spending cuts, can’t possibly keep.
There’s more at stake here than this month’s version of a Republican healthcare bill.
Trump’s scattershot approach, his chaotic management style, his inattention to detail, his failure to bring GOP dissidents into line and his sagging popularity are all making it harder for Republicans to enact their entire legislative agenda.
“The central challenge for Republicans is how to make it clear that they are focused on the No. 1 issue – the economy, jobs and incomes,” David Winston, a GOP strategist who has advised congressional leaders, told me last week. “They’re spending a lot of time talking about other things.”
Including tweets? “Including tweets,” he acknowledged.
“They need to define the outcomes of their agenda items, including healthcare, in a way that people will support them. And that’s not happening.”
Five centuries ago, Machiavelli concluded that what a ruler needs most is a quality he called, in Italian, “virtu.”
The word doesn’t mean “virtue” in our moralistic sense. Instead, it means something more like “prowess,” a combination of boldness and skill.
Trump clearly owns the first half of that equation, boldness. But he has shown little skill. If he’s ever read Machiavelli – an unlikely proposition, to be sure – it doesn’t show.
He’s neither feared nor loved. As a result, whether he realizes it, his power as president is already eroding.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org