What is "political capital," anyway?

Politics and policy.
Nov. 30 2004 7:13 PM

America's New Political Capital

President Bush infects Washington with his favorite buzzword.

Can't hang on to capital
Can't hang on to capital

It's hard to imagine it, but there once was a time when people used the phrase "political capital" to mean "seat of government." Now the most common usage of "political capital" means the power that popularity confers on a politician, or something like that. "Political capital" is shaping up to be the first buzzword of the second Bush administration.

"Political capital" is today's indispensable cliché—what "paradigm shift" was to the early 1990s, what "new new thing" was to the turn of the century, what "tipping point" and "perfect storm" were to 2003, what "gravitas" is to the beginning of every presidential campaign and what "it all comes down to turnout" is to every campaign's end. Unlike "misunderestimated" (already in decline from overuse), Bush doesn't get credit for coining this one, but he is its greatest popularizer.

During the first press conference after his re-election, Bush said, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style." Traditionally, estimating how much power a newly elected president would wield was accomplished by pondering the size of his "mandate." (That's the bulge to the left of his "pocket veto.") No more. Over the past month, Bush has instead been urged by politicians and pundits to spend his "political capital" on a host of issues: immigration reform, intelligence reform, national security reform, tax reform, clean coal technology, reducing federal spending, appointing conservative Supreme Court nominees, passing the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and obtaining peace in the Middle East.

Bush has long been smitten with the notion of getting and spending "political capital." In December 2000, Time asked him, "What did you learn about being president from watching your father?" Bush's answer: "I learned how to earn political capital and how to spend it." The interview continued:

TIME: You think he didn't spend it well late in his term?

BUSH: I think he did not. History has shown that he had some capital in the bank that was not properly spent.

TIME: What did you learn about being President from watching Bill Clinton?

BUSH: Great question [long pause]. I felt like he tried to spend capital on issues that he didn't have any capital on at first, like health care.

Bush liked the capital metaphor as a candidate, too, returning to it again and again during an interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press in 1999. Bush told Russert he would spend "capital" on his plan for Social Security. "It's an issue where a president is going to have to say, 'I'm going to spend capital, political capital gain[ed] in the course of a campaign. I'm going to have to spend capital to bring both Democrats and Republicans together to solve this problem,' " Bush said. "It's not only going to require tough decisions, but from an executive perspective—something I've learned as governor of Texas, a governor has to spend capital on a few items. A president must determine what items that he intends to spend capital on and be willing to do so." No matter what Russert asked him about his plan, Bush returned to his stock answer: "A president must be willing to tell both Republicans and Democrats, 'I'm going to spend capital myself,' " and "What I've learned as governor of the state of Texas, and I've learned as a key leadership principle, is to set a few items and to tell both Republicans and Democrats, 'I'm willing to spend capital on those items,' " and "I will make this pledge, that I will spend political capital necessary to bring Republicans and Democrats together to solve this problem."

Even when he was the governor of Texas, Bush talked openly about the importance of his political capital, and a search of the Factiva database shows a dramatic increase in the number of stories and news transcripts that contain the words "political capital" since George W. Bush arrived on the national scene as a presidential candidate in 1999. A spike in 1993 is attributable to Bill Clinton's first year in office (Like so many things in politics, it appears that Clinton can be blamed for this, too.) At the time, the Washington Post was so intrigued by the sudden increase in "political capital" in the nation's political capital that it published a front-page article asking, "But what, exactly, is 'political capital'? Where does it come from? Where does it go?" (One sentence reads like parody: " 'I use the phrase all the time,' admits Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.") But the rest of the increase before 1999 is attributable mostly to the increasing number of articles in Factiva's database each year, rather than an increase in the phrase's currency. To test that hypothesis, I compared the incidence of "political capital" each year against the incidence of the elder statesman of Washington clichés: "elder statesman." Sure enough, the frequency of "elder statesman" increases at a similar rate as "political capital" until the year of the 2000 campaign, when Bush's pet phrase takes off and never looks back.

We've become accustomed to talking about all kinds of abstract capital in recent years—human capital, social capital, intellectual capital—but Bush's definition of political capital makes the metaphor particularly inapt. For one, you don't spend capital. You invest it. But Bush's understanding of the idea dictates that it be spent rather than saved. As Karl Rove put it in 2001, "If you don't spend it, it's not like treasure stuck away at a storehouse someplace. It is perishable. It dwindles away." What kind of economic message is that from a president who wants to encourage an ownership society?

The question the Post asked in 1993—what in the world is political capital, anyway?—still hasn't been answered satisfactorily. Why, for example, didn't Bill Clinton have capital to spend on health care, in Bush's view, but he had some to spend elsewhere, apparently? Does any other kind of capital have restrictions on where and how it can be used? Edward J. López, an economist at the University of North Texas, delineated two types of political capital in a 2002 paper for the Review of Austrian Economics: "reputational" capital, a politician's "standing with voters and other unorganized interests," and "representative" capital, which includes the powers that stem from a politician's office. But Bush doesn't mean anything that rigorous. In fact, he'd probably scoff at the idea. He just uses it as a substitute for the goodwill that an election gives an executive with the legislature, and he probably likes the way it paints him as a CEO-president.

The president doesn't have any capital, and he knows it. Like a citizen of Weimar Germany, he has a wheelbarrow full of hyper-inflating cash that has to be spent before it becomes worthless. "Political Confederate dollars" doesn't have quite the ring of "political capital," but it's a better metaphor. Any takers?

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