On Political Capital

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what “political capital” means. Conventionally it’s thought of in a fairly similar fashion to gold coins collected in a video game that allow the possessor to buy a bigger sword or magic healing potion. The most dynamic conventional wisdom notes that political capital will disappear if not spent in a reasonable amount of time, but that’s about as close the words “political capital” will ever find themselves to the words “savvy analysis.”

Big Tent Democrat raises a point about the relative influence of George Bush early in his first term as comparted to Obama’s early days.

George Bush, who LOST the popular vote in 2000, had the political juice to pass a 1.2 TRILLION dollar tax cut in 2001. Barack Obama, who won a sweeping victory last November, can barely muster $500 billion in stimulus spending in the face of the Greatest Depression. Some “victory.”

The issue of political capital is raised here in a somewhat roundabout way. What allows Bush, who went into office under the shadow of a constitutional crisis, let alone without winning the popular vote, to achieve a bigger ideological goal out of the gate than Obama? I don’t think there’s any objective use of a subjective measure like “political capital” that would suggest that Bush actually started his term with greater political capital than Obama has.

As far as I can tell, then, “political capital” is really a measure of ones willingness to exert ones will in Washington. It’s not a measure of what has been accrued, but rather who someone really is. You’re either willing to impose your will in a legislative fight or you’re going to enter a fight ready to concede stakes to your opponents.

The challenge facing President Obama is that so much of his campaign has been framed around post-partisan goals. Even since taking office he’s been seen decrying Washington partisanship as a problem we need to overcome (as opposed to, say, Republicans clinging to failed ideas in a time of crisis). When Obama stands up as a fighting Democrat, as he did last week with House Democrats, he is more likely to be painted as partisan than as principled (something Steve Benen noted earlier today).  Obama will have to reframe his agenda around his ideology and his principles, and away from bridging philosophically necessary divides between the Democratic and Republican parties. Only in this way will he begin to have space to exercise his will qua political capital. We can’t expect him to be able to turn electoral mandate into legislation as long as he’s incorrectly identifying the challenges that need to be overcome and who is responsible for them.

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