Spend Your Political Capital Before It's Gone

How a president chooses to spend political capital contributes greatly to whether or not his presidency is a success. In his first term, George W. Bush tried to avoid the complacency of his father's presidency by pushing a sizable legislative agenda through Congress. But Bush's stock of political capital disappeared by his second term, indicating that he had overreached in efforts to implement his domestic and international priorities.

Research Fellow
John C. Fortier
President George W. Bush often speaks about his style of political leadership, especially the theory of political capital. How he acquired and spent political capital to his advantage--but then lost it irretrievably--defines his legacy.

Bush understood that the formal powers of the Oval Office alone do not make an effective president. Presidents acquire a sheen, a popularity that gives them clout in office. And a president who has clout can get things done.

What good is popularity if you don't do anything with it?

For Bush, this informal power, or political capital, had a "use it or lose it" quality. What good was popularity if you were not going to do anything with it? Political capital not put to use would waste away.

The negative example for Bush was his father's presidency. After the U.S. victory in the first Iraq war, the elder Bush earned the 90 percent job approval rating that his son would acquire after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the elder Bush was sometimes described as "the inbox president." Rather than harnessing his post-war popularity by pushing a proactive domestic agenda, Bush sat on his good numbers and dealt with issues as they came to him. Within months that popularity was gone, and Bill Clinton soundly beat him in the 1992 election.

As Texas governor and, later, as president, George W. Bush studiously avoided the model of his father. He sought to follow up his 2000 election and policy victories with an ambitious legislative agenda where more victories would lead to even more political capital.

After unseating Democratic incumbent Ann Richards in 1994, Bush used his gubernatorial victory to push a focused agenda reforming education, legal liability, and the welfare and juvenile justice systems. Success in these areas led Bush to push for an even broader legislative package to change the Texas school funding system. He overreached and fell far short of his original plan, but he did end up making some changes in the state property tax system, snatching a small victory from the jaws of defeat. This modest victory preserved his popularity, which remained high throughout his six years as governor.

Bush came into the presidency after a protracted election dispute but acted like a man with a mandate. His election victory, no matter how small, was a form of political capital to be spent, and he pushed his tax and education reform packages through Congress. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Republican victories in the 2002 midterm election and the initial phase of the Iraq war, Bush gained more political capital. And each time, he spent it, going to Congress for more tax cuts, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security and other domestic priorities. Bush developed the image of a winner. Despite narrow Republican majorities in Congress, he succeeded in holding his party together and pulling out one legislative victory after another. He famously did not veto a bill in his first term.

Even when Bush veered from a typical conservative agenda on education reform and Medicare prescription drugs, Republicans voted with him, although some held their noses. Republicans in Congress did not want to break the string of Bush's first-term legislative juggernaut. Bush was spending his political capital and, by winning, was getting repaid.

Bush's 2004 reelection was the apex of his presidency. He won a spirited, high-­turnout contest by a clear margin, he brought more Republicans to Congress, and he was ready to spend his latest cache of political capital on two big domestic priorities: Social Security reform and tax reform.

But 2005 saw Bush lose all of his political capital. His domestic priorities were bold, but he had overreached and did not have plans that Congress could get to work on immediately. The legislative vacuum in Congress stood in contrast to Bush's first term, where Congress was almost always busy at work on Bush priorities. More importantly, conditions in Iraq deteriorated, and the public began to lose confidence in the president and his ability to win the war. Bush himself said that he had spent his political capital in Iraq and had lost it there. Republican scandals and the president's lack of leadership immediately after Hurricane Katrina further damaged Bush.

The winning streak was over, the president's job approval numbers had dropped and his days setting the legislative agenda were over. Even though Bush had his biggest Republican majorities in the 109th Congress, Republican leaders staked out their own agenda, not wanting to tie themselves to a now unpopular president.

Bush never regained political capital after 2005. Ronald Reagan had early heady days when he controlled the agenda; his popularity waned, but he was able to regain his footing. Bill Clinton famously bounced from highs to lows and back again. But for Bush, there was no second act. Reagan and Clinton could counterpunch and thrive as president without control of Congress. The Bush presidency had only two settings: on and off. In his first term, Bush controlled the legislative agenda like a prime minister; in the second, others set the agenda.

President-elect Barack Obama won election more convincingly than Bush, and he will have larger congressional majorities than Republicans had. No doubt he will begin with some political capital of his own. But as the Bush presidency has taught us, that capital will run out someday, and a real test of leadership will be how Obama adjusts.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.

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