Political Capital

By , 23 July, 2009, No Comment

During the first press conference of his second term, George W. Bush famously said “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Bush meant that his comfortable victory conferred a mandate to pursue his agenda without worrying too much about concessions to the other side. But Bush’s popularity, which was never as pronounced as he liked to believe, collapsed about a year later and he never got around to spending that capital on any new ventures.

Barack Obama seems to have a similar sense of his own popularity. Because he knows he polls high among voters, 44 believes he can get policy changes through a Congress of members eager to latch on to the Obama-geist without having to get his own hands dirty in negotiations. The result is broad directives to ‘get health care reform done’ while members of Congress are left to the details. Then, when they develop two proposals, one more progressive and one more centrist, the President throws his weight behind the one that seems more popular.

Here’s the problem: that proposal will cost a lot more and work a lot less well. And if last night’s press conference showed anything, it was that people are starting to realize that and ask sharper questions (Chuck Todd wanted to know just how many Americans would still be out in the cold after this law passes, Jack Tapper wanted to know what types of care rationing we should prepare for; neither reporter got a straight answer).

But once the President has anointed the progressive bill as “the” proposal, its failure means the failure of health care reform altogether, since no one remembers/wants to go back and recover the centrist alternative. That is my great worry—that this bill will collapse in negotiations sometime later this summer or early fall and Democrats will find that the whole health care issue becomes tainted for them for another decade.

Commentators noted that Obama places all the blame for holding up the bill on Republicans and none on centrist Democrats, who are actually the block on reform right now. Why? Perhaps because the Republicans have no alternative bill, so blaming them is easy. Accepting the battle with the centrist Democrats would require Obama to defend not just the idea of health care reform—he’s good with ideas—but also the specifics of his plan against the specifics of theirs. No amount of political capital can help him there.

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