The Washington Times
The post-re-election President Bush said he has acquired “political capital,” and he means to “spend” it – on a second-term policy agenda noteworthy for its ambition, including Social Security and tax reform. That’s an interesting little twist on the metaphor of “political capital.” Perhaps it was a slip and Mr. Bush’s intention in using the term was entirely conventional. But maybe not.
What is political capital? It’s hard to be precise, but surely it’s some form of persuasive authority stemming from a position of political strength. It may be easier to think about it in comparative terms: Mr. Bush clearly had more political capital on Nov. 3 than he did two days earlier and arguably (apart from the effects of September 11) in his entire first term. He won a solid majority. Mr. Bush also has more political capital for having won an outright majority than he would have had he squeaked in with 49.8 percent of the vote.
He also enjoys more political capital for having run on the very policy agenda he now proposes to implement. Whether or not he has a mandate – which would seem to be something like a temporary monopoly on political capital, such that opposition to his wishes would be futile – he certainly has more political capital than he would have had he run on a feel-good but contentless 1984-style “Morning in America” campaign, then sprung his policy agenda on the country only after he had been overwhelmingly re-elected. (Of course re-elected, let alone overwhelmingly, is something he almost certainly would not have been had he run such a campaign.)
Mr. Bush also enjoys more political capital for the gains that Republicans made in the Senate and the House. It’s not just the bigger majorities, but also majorities won with Mr. Bush at the head of a wide-ranging Republican victory. Mr. Bush also gains from the defeat of the top Democratic leader in Washington, Sen. Tom Daschle.
Finally, perhaps paradoxically, Mr. Bush enjoys more political capital for having won in conditions of adversity than he would have had the going been good – a roaring domestic economy, Osama bin Laden dead, and an Iraq peaceful and democratic, its stores of weapons of mass destruction found and destroyed as a chastened France and Germany scramble to join the coalition. Mr. Bush’s “success” did not speak for itself. Rather, he had to mount a robust defense of his own policies and conduct because of the difficulties they have encountered.
Now, in the usual metaphor of political capital, presidents who have it often make the mistake of trying to “hoard” it. They put their political capital in a safe place in order to bolster their personal popularity. They do not “risk it” in pursuit of political victories, whether on their policy agenda or for controversial judicial appointments, etc. And therein, in the conventional application of the metaphor, lies peril. For political capital, when hoarded, does not remain intact but rather diminishes over time through disuse. It “wastes away” – and with it, a president’s popularity and reputation.
Therefore, again in the conventional use of the metaphor, it is mere prudence for a president to “invest” his political capital. Only by seeking political victories and winning them by such judicious investment can a president maintain and even increase his political capital. Who dares wins.
This is, of course, a most mellifluous metaphor for the activists in the president’s camp. It promises reward for ambitious action and warns against the high price of a lack of ambition. In fact, it almost sounds like a sure thing: The president takes his political capital, invests it and reaps a mighty return.
Striking it is, then, that Mr. Bush came in for only half of the metaphor: He believes he possesses political capital, but rather than invest it, he proposes to spend it.
I think this innovation may be an improvement. It removes the implicit expectation of an automatic return on the use of political capital. Because in reality, one may spend one’s political capital and lose it – specifically, if things don’t turn out the way you hope, namely, in glorious victory.
Mr. Bush, I submit, knows something about this. He spent down a huge reserve of political capital, virtually the whole of his post-September 11 stash, to take the country to war in Iraq, and he very nearly lost everything: Surely, had Sen. John Kerry beaten him by even the narrowest of margins, the result would have been described as a repudiation of Mr. Bush and his policies.
No, there is nothing automatic about getting a return on your investment of political capital, if by return you mean more of that selfsame political capital. But you can indeed buy something by spending your capital: the end of the Saddam regime, or perhaps Social Security or tax reform. Perhaps you get a return on what you spend in terms of enhancement of your political strength, but perhaps you just end up weakened. Even so, you may think that what you are trying to accomplish is worth the price.