The Illusion of ‘Political Capital’

Six months ago, President George W. Bush, savoring his re-election, bragged about the “political capital” he would use to ram his personal agenda through Congress and sell his programs to the American people.

Easy come, easy go. The problem with political capital is that you can’t take it to the bank and it vanishes faster than cash on a Las Vegas gambling spree.

Bush blew his political capital on a flawed Social Security program that – like his war against Iraq – did not have the facts to back up his assumptions and then added insult to injury with a stupid political stunt in the Teri Schiavo debacle and compounded his problems with the nomination of an arrogant, stubborn hothead like himself as ambassador to the United Nations.

But Bush’s political bank account is busted because he really didn’t have anything in it. Like so many politicians, he mistook a narrow election victory as a mandate and blew any chance of leveraging it to his advantage by thinking he had carte blanche to do any damn thing he wanted.

Bush won the 2004 Presidential election not so much because a majority of Americans preferred him as their leader but more because a majority of voters did not trust the waffling, limp-wrist the Democrats put on the ballot to run against him. John F. Kerry was not only an embarrassment to his party and the political process, he also helmed a campaign that will go down in political science history as how to do everything wrong.

Americans didn’t vote so much “for” Bush as they voted “against” Kerry. That ain’t a mandate by anyone’s definition and such elections don’t provide any “political capital” to spend anywhere.

Newt Gingrich made the same mistake in the 1994 mid-term elections that gave Republicans control of the House and Senate for the first time in half a century. Voters, angry at President Bill Clinton over his first two years in office, turned Congress over to the GOP because they were fed up with the Democrats. Gingrich, however, saw the election as a mandate for every extremist Republican position pushed by the party’s rabid right-wing and set Congress on a collision course that has produced more stalemate than change over the years.

Republicans soon abandoned any pretense of reform and reverted to form, passing pork-barrel laden legislation, forgetting promises about term limits and tougher ethics standards and proving that a GOP-controlled Congress can be just as corrupt as one run by the Democrats.

Now the “political capital” accounts of those who control Congress and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are broke – more insolvent than the Social Security system and piling up red ink faster than the national deficit.

Bush’s Social Security reform plan is stalled, opposed as much by Republicans as Democrats. His nomination of John Bolton as UN Ambassador may be DOA, sunk by Bolton’s callous disregard for subordinates as well as his unwillingness to consider any point of view other than his own.

Congress, stalemated by fights over judicial nominations, burned by a bitter fight on filibuster rules and distracted by increasing revelations over the ethical lapses of scandal-ridden House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has turned into a do-nothing branch of government.

Polls show public dissatisfaction with both the President and Congress at an all-time high. They distrust the Republican leadership but also don’t believe the Democrats are, or can be, any better.

Both sides have blown what little political capital they may or may not have had. The only question remaining is whether or not the situation can be fixed.