Saturday, August 29, 2009

Does "political capital" make sense?

Back when I was on my high school debate team (so young and innocent, falling asleep every night to visions of nuclear warfare sparked by an ill-timed revision of Native American blood-quantum policy), one of the ideas we fixed on time after time was that of "political capital": the thought that a President has a limited and discrete amount of influence over Congress and the broader political debate. The more... things a President does, the more political capital he or she uses up, until none remains and no further action is possible.

Now that I'm a few years out of high school debate, most of the formulations on which we used to rely appear overly simplistic and not particularly applicable to the real world. Not so "political capital": Google News records over 900 mentions of it in just the last month. Last week, the New York Times argued that Afghanistan could derail the Obama Presidency by sucking away his political capital, and noted:
George W. Bush learned first-hand how political capital can slip away when an overseas war loses popular backing. With Iraq in flames, Mr. Bush found little support for his second-term domestic agenda of overhauling Social Security and liberalizing immigration laws. L.B.J. managed to create Medicare and enact landmark civil rights legislation but some historians have argued that the Great Society ultimately stalled because of Vietnam.
Just like in high school debate, this reading of events massively oversimplifies reality and, in so doing, totally fails to explain anything helpful. Yes, Iraq (among other things) probably made it much harder for Bush to impose his domestic agenda on the country. But that's not because he expended too much political capital in order to fight the war; it's because the war was perceived as a disaster for which he was entirely responsible, and the litany of failures, scandals and corruption that dogged his presidency made it hard for the public to trust him when he tried to reform the White House easter egg hunt, let alone such political third rails as Social Security and immigration.

The LBJ comparison is somewhat more helpful, since Johnson inherited a conflict that ultimately sucked all the oxygen out of the room and made it impossible for him to enact what would have been fairly popular social reforms (popular in the long run at least, if not immediately). Of course, Vietnam was as divisive as it was in large part because of the draft, whereas a small fraction of Americans today are directly impacted by military service in their family.

But the real stupidity of the "political capital" concept is that it attempts to explain an extremely complex system by focusing on only its most trivial, horse-racey elements. If the idea made any sense at all, we'd not only already have single-payer health care reform, we'd have EFCA and a more robust stimulus and aggressive MPG requirements and the entire state of Nevada would be one massive solar farm. Why? Because who can you possibly imagine with more political capital than a young, charismatic, attractive, articulate, hyper-intelligent and beloved President taking office immediately after one of the most unpopular administrations in American history? A President who raised jaw-dropping amounts of money during his election campaign, who mobilized entire swaths of the electorate that had never been engaged before, and who presumably has more resources to lend to vulnerable members of Congress than any President since George Washington? A President who has a large majority in the House, and 60 fucking Democratic votes in the Senate? Oh, and also he's the first black President, and the media treats him like a cross between Bono and Jesus. Who could possibly have more fucking political capital than that guy?

And yet, we don't have health care reform, and the best we're likely to do is a weak public option. We don't have EFCA, and won't. We might get decent environmental legislation, but I'm not holding my breath.

And why not? Because the world is way more complex than one simple-minded idea. Because there are a million tiny little factors that matter in the real world, like Teddy Kennedy (RIP) being too sick to come to work, and they don't fit neatly into this one overarching artificial construct.