Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 25th, 2005
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester series (AT END), on May 24th, 2005 President George W. Bush spoke at Greece Athena High School about social security.
As candidates and presidents, George W. and father came to Rochester 5 times. Bush Sr. as vice presidential candidate in 1980; vice presidential candidate in 1984 and as President in 1989 and Bush Jr. again as President in 2006.
Following Bush’s close but clear victory in 2004 over Democrat John Kerry, Bush made social security reform his priority domestic issue.
In Bush’s first post election press conference, Bush said he had gained “political capital” that he planned to use on entitlement reform: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
As described by Slate’s Chris Suellentrop in America’s New Political Capital: President Bush infects Washington with his favorite buzzword (2004), “political capital” became the political cliché de jour for pundits during the second Bush Administration. Bush himself didn’t coin the term, but was perhaps its greastest popularizer.
To learn more about what exactly is political capital, I turned to our political scientist, Dr. Bruce Howard Kay. As Bruce explains, professional political scientists take a dim view of the “political capital” buzzword.
“When pundits talk about political capital they usually mean a president’s influence over legislators or the public to advance some policy objective, say health care, tax reform. It’s seen like an imaginary asset for the president to hoard, spend or squander.
Its value is thought to appreciate when the Prez is riding high, like after a big election victory or a spike in popularity. It is imagined to decline after his party gets thumped in a midterm or he gets caught bending an intern over his desk in the oval office.
When he amasses enough political capital, the logic goes, the Prez should immediately spend it on something, anything. Because political capital can depreciate faster than a Dodge SUV. With enough capital, allies will be charmed and foes converted or outflanked on the path to reform.
Political scientists roll their eyes at the mere mention of the term for three reasons.
First, the concept conveniently overlooks the constitutional separation between Congress and the executive branch. The Prez doesn’t have much direct power over Congress — aside from the bully pulpit. He can’t force them to vote. The most he can do is set the agenda.
Second it ignores the realities of party politics. In the US Congress, the incentives driving voting have way more to do with ideology and partisanship than presidential influence. Congress is more likely to vote along party lines when the White House meddles. And nowadays the Prez can’t even count on discipline from his own party even when he has a majority!
Third, there isn’t any evidence to support the concept. When people point to Johnson or Reagan or Clinton all said to have political capital to spend, they overlook the facts that their parties had big majorities in Congress that allowed them to get some big pieces of legislation passed.
Lastly, the concept is usually measured by its effects, which is tautological. How do you know when a President has enough political capital to carry out some reform? When he gets stuff passed. But what if he didn’t get stuff passed? Well, that’s cuz his capital tanked or he never had enough to begin with.”
Ultimately, Bush could not pass social security reform which was always a tough proposition. As Bush said in 2010:
For as long as I can remember, Social Security has been the third rail of American politics. Grab ahold of it, and you’re toast. In 2005, I did more than touch the third rail. I hugged it. I did so for one reason: It is unfair to make a generation of young people pay into a system that is going broke.
Bruce had his own Bush visit experience. In 2007 when Bush visited Albania, Bruce was there working for USAID. Bruce helped organize the trip, but did not meet Bush whose political capital was by then running on empty.
Presidential Visits Series