Machiavelli and Frank Lautenberg
Nearly all politicians, at one time or another, have engaged in behavior that might be described as Machiavellian, and Frank Lautenberg, senator of New Jersey, is no exception. In fact, examining Lautenberg’s career leads one to the inevitable conclusion that he operates in a mostly Machiavellian fashion, because in both cases where Lautenberg entered the Senate he demonstrated a capacity for ruthlessness and an astute ability to manipulate the political climate for his own ends. When Lautenberg was first reelected to the Senate in 1988, he won following a blistering campaign in which he followed Machiavelli’s advice to get all of the dirty work out of the way so he could spend the rest of his time in power without having to exercise overt aggression and hostility. When Lautenberg returned to the Senate in 2002 after a short-lived retirement, he was able to use his previous work as a means to deftly manipulate both the necessary party powers as well as the general electorate. Examining these two points in Lautenberg’s career in detail will help to demonstrate why one may comfortably call Lautenberg mostly Machiavellian, because even if some of his time actually serving in the Senate does not appear Machiavellian at first glance, the means by which he attained that position, and thus the crucial aspects of his career, are unarguably Machiavellian.
Before investigating Lautenberg’s elections in more detail, it will be useful to briefly discuss some of the policies that have been most important during his political career. Though he is generally considered “one of the Senate’s more liberal voices,” the two issues he seems to have focused on most are transportation and the functioning of the national security state, with these two areas often overlapping, such as in the case of aviation safety and security (Times Topics, “Frank R. Lautenberg”). He has been a notable supporter of restrictions on gun ownership (especially for those on the terror watch or no-fly list) and public infrastructure improvement projects such as “banning smoking on domestic flights,” enacting “a passenger bill of rights,” and a possible New Jersey to New York rail line (“Senator Lautenberg: On The Issues” 2011). In 2011 Lautenberg authored a study of report entitled Firearms, Explosives and Terrorists, arguing among other things that “current gun laws in the United States only increase the risk of a commando-style attack” because “known or suspected terrorists are not prohibited from purchasing” the kinds of guns and explosives which are most frequently used in these kinds of attacks, and which are widely available in the United States (Lautenberg 9). This same year he has “been trying to revive the idea of a trans-Hudson train tunnel ever since Gov. Chris Christie [halted] construction on the one that New Jersey Transit started to build in 2010” (Times Topics, “Frank R. Lautenberg”). It is worth noting the key areas of Lautenberg’s interests because they serve as part of his overall maneuvering. This is not to say that Lautenberg is disingenuous in his support for these issues, but rather that they help to get him elected regardless of his personal feelings, and thus must be considered alongside his larger political efforts.
Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 following the resignation of Nicholas Brady, who had been appointed to complete the term of disgraced senator Harrison Williams. Lautenberg only won the 1982 election “by the smallest of margins over Republican Millicent Fenwick, even though he had outspent her $6 million to $2 million,” and his 1988 reelection seemed unlikely due to the fact that he was running against Pete Dawkins, who was “first captain of the Corps of Cadets at West Point; football co-captain and winner of the Heisman Trophy, president of the class of 1959, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford,” a veteran with “military service in Korea and Vietnam,” for which he won “the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and two Bronze Stars” (Swint 71-72). In short, “Dawkins was a ‘dream’ candidate for the Republicans in 1988,” while Lautenberg was struggling “public approval ratings in the forties” and an inability to appear dynamic compared to someone with such a prestigious resume (Swint 71).
Thus, at first glance Lautenberg had seemingly little chance at winning reelection, but this prognosis did not take into account the extent to which Lautenberg would take Machiavelli’s advice when it comes to “cruelties being used well or badly” (Machiavelli 35). Of course, Lautenberg did not have anyone murdered or tortured to win reelection, but in the world of American campaign advertising and propaganda, Lautenberg did the next best thing: he went negative. After waiting until Dawkins had aired his first campaign ads, Lautenberg “let loose a torrent of slashing attacks against Dawkins,” largely centered around the fact that Dawkins had only moved to New Jersey a few months before declaring his candidacy. Machiavelli suggests that “in taking a state the conqueror must arrange to commit all his cruelties at once [â€¦] so as to be able, by not making fresh changes, to reassure people and win them over by benefiting them” (Machiavelli 36). Lautenberg did precisely this, hammering Dawkins with ads labeling him a “carpetbagger,” and liar, and a hypocrite without ever flinching, to the point that he even rejected Dawkins’ offer of “a pledge to end negative campaigning” (Swint 77). The ads worked, and Lautenberg won the election with “the largest margin of victory in his Senate career, taking 54% of the vote” (Swint 77). Of course, Lautenberg’s behavior in the 1988 campaign could only be accurately labeled as Machiavellian if he had followed through by making this bitter, aggressive campaign his way of “committing all his cruelties at once,” and examining Lautenberg’s subsequent reelection to the Senate following his retirement in 2001 will reveal that this is in fact the case.
Lautenberg retired from the Senate in 2001, but in 2002 “he ran again and won the seat being vacated by Senator Robert G. Torricelli” (Times Topics, “Frank R. Lautenberg”). This election was far easier and far less venomous than his 1988 campaign, and a look at Machiavelli’s advice for rulers selected by the people will help to demonstrate why. Machiavelli notes that anyone who gains power in what he calls a “civic principality” does so “not entirely on worth or entirely on fortune, but rather on cunning assisted by fortune” and “by help of popular favour or by the favour of the aristocracy” (Machiavelli 37). Lautenberg excelled at currying the favor of both these groups, because while he argued for greater public transportation and health benefits on behalf of the general populace, he was nonetheless attractive to America’s “aristocracy” (which in the case of America is really a corporatocracy) due to the fact that “Frank Lautenberg had also made a bundle as the CEO of Automatic Data Processing (ADP), one of the nation’s most successful corporations” (Swint 74). In the years between Lautenberg’s contentious 1988 campaign and his 2002 reelection, he had succeeded in advocating for a number of issues appealing to both the general populace and the ruling elite, such as securing “more than $1 billion for New Jersey’s transportation needs” as well as millions more for New Jersey’s health care industry (“Senator Lautenberg: On The Issues” 2011). He had no need to resort to the same negative tactics used in his earlier campaign against Pete Dawkins, because by 2002 he had succeeded in convincing both the general populace and the corporate elite that their interests lined up with his. In effect, Lautenberg had succeeded in making himself seem not only desirable but actually necessary for the state of New Jersey.
In a truly Machiavellian fashion, Lautenberg used cruelty, insinuation, and ad hominem attacks in order to crush Pete Dawkins and solidify his hold on his Senate seat in 1988, and then spent the rest of his time making the necessary constituents happy. Thus, instead of allowing his negative tactics to “increase rather than diminish with time” and lead to a kind of resentment towards his authority, Lautenberg wisely used these tactics once and with overwhelming force, embodying those “well used” cruelties which “are committed once for the need of securing one’s self, and which afterward are not persisted in, but are exchanged for measures as useful to the subjects as possible” (Machiavelli 35). These “useful” measures, of course, are those policies and issues which served to get Lautenberg reelected term after term, to the point that even returning from a self-imposed retirement was not seen as indicative of a hunger for power and status, but rather as the generous decision of someone looking to “serve” his state. Thus, one cannot help but conclude that Lautenberg’s career was made possible precisely through the application of some portions of Machiavellian theory, because his continued dominance in a state with wildly vacillating political tendencies cannot be explained otherwise. Again, this is not to suggest that people were not actually happy with Lautenberg’s work in the Senate, but rather that their happiness is only a means to a political end.
Frank Lautenberg’s career may be described as “mostly Machiavellian” because of the way in which he used negative campaign ads early on in order to secure his hold on power, before shifting towards more outwardly benevolent means of maintaining that power. Taking Machiavelli’s advice to commit all the cruelties one needs all at once, instead of piecemeal over a longer period, Lautenberg ran a vicious campaign against Pete Dawkins that relied almost exclusively on the former’s ability to paint Dawkins as an opportunist and a charlatan, effectively using Dawkins’ own robust resume against him. Having solidified his hold on power by winning his first reelection, Lautenberg proceeded to curry the favor of the two groups whose favor Machiavelli sees as necessary for ruling any participatory form of government, namely, the general populace and the corporate elite whose money ends up funding the majority of political activity in America. In this way, Lautenberg protected himself from any resentment born out of his earlier negative campaign tactics, and successfully rebranded himself as a reliable stalwart of participatory democracy.
Anonymous. “Frank R. Lautenberg.” Times Topics. The New York Times, 21 Sep 2011. Web.
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Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. London: Grant Richards, 1903.
Lautenberg, Frank. United States. Firearms, Explosive and Terrorists: A Looming Threat A
Major U.S. Vulnerability. Washington: DIANE Publishing, 2011. Print.
“Senator Lautenberg: On The Issues .” Senator Frank Lautenberg. The United States Senate,
2011. Web. 5 Oct 2011. .
Swint, Kerwin. Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2008.
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