Article II of the U.S. Constitution is devoted to the Presidency, spelling out Executive responsibilities and powers. No mention, however, can be found there regarding an often vital source of presidential power, namely POLITICAL CAPITAL. And what is that you ask? Well, it’s sort of an enhancement an additional gear available to presidents who’ve been elected by sizable majorities or who are very popular, or have achieved significant triumphs, whether on the battlefield, the legislative chambers of Congress or in the field of diplomacy. It provides a cushion when the going gets tough. It’s like having money in the bank. In recent years it was president George Bush who laid claim to this valuable political additive. After winning re-election in 2004 he announced that, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Lots of folks subscribe to this idea of political capital, but admit it’s a somewhat vague and elusive concept. For example, how much can one claim to have?” Is it in any way quantifiable? Can it be calculated in terms of dollars and cents, size of legislative majorities, level of public popularity? All of these? Can it be stockpiled? Replenished? Who determines how much political capital is available at any particular point? The media?A President’s staff? Public opinion polls or a gaggle of political science professors?
Is political capital something one simply can bask in or have added to your net worth? Or must it be spent, i.e., use it or lose it? And if a president chooses to spend it should it be on a single substantial goal or is it better to have parceled it out in support of several less ambitious objectives? Bush, you may recall, put most of his chips on the table in an effort to begin privatizing Social Security. That didn’t get very far. And he was left with most of his political capital depleted. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State, on the other hand, riding a wave of substantial public approval chose early in 2013 to stake a chunk of his capital on stricter gun regulation. He got what he wanted from legislators, but took a pounding in public opinion polls, which presumably reduced the political capital available to him to advance other reforms. In all likelihood president Obama had little desire to make a strong push for gun legislation until the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut. He was, therefore, obliged to play his hand “prematurely”, and in this instance his capital dwindled rapidly, turned out to be insufficient..
Just as we track the S&P 500 or consumer confidence or the price of gasoline at the pump, we should in view of what has been said here be able to develop a political capital index (PCI) for our presidents. This the political futures platform, could become a daily trading market for investors and speculators. More significantly, it could lend substance to political calculations offering clues to which items on a president’s agenda may actually be achievable.