"Political capital" is a cliched term that presidents and pundits often use to describe the vast influence that can be exerted, when necessary, to get something done.
Expending political capital involves risk because heavy-handed leverage is often needed to advance a cause. And that means that political capital, once spent, can't be spent again without somehow earning more. In 2000, candidate George W. Bush talked about how he would use it in Washington to press for bold reforms of Social Security, Medicare and the Defense Department.
Earlier this year, President Bush used his political capital to press for a highly controversial cause -- a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The president was willing to use that political capital, pressing Congress for a vote with the knowledge that the measure had almost zero chance of passing.
In 2000, the president said he found moderate gun control measures such as the 1994 assault weapons ban to be "reasonable" and indicated that he would support renewal of the ban when it came up for a vote in 2004. These sorts of comments did not endear him to the National Rifle Association, but its members were willing to give him a break: Bush was trying to position himself as a moderate at the time and certain concessions needed to be made.
What happened this year as the assault weapons law neared expiration? Bush spokesman Scott McClellan addressed the issue at a press conference earlier this week. McClellan would not name one step that the president took to have the assault weapons ban reauthorized. He would not name one congressional leader whom he had lobbied or one speech he had given to back the assault weapons ban. All McClellan would say is that the president's position was "well known."
Reed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, declined to go much beyond McClellan's statements, saying: "We'll leave the punditry to the pundits and just say the president's position is well known and has not changed."
The Making of a Non-Issue
This column is not an examination of the effectiveness of the law, a topic that was already explored at length by Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin. It is about how the words politicians speak relate to the actions they take.
Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), who co-sponsored the original assault weapons ban bill in 1993, sees it differently.
"The president has put no political capital on reauthorizing the assault weapons ban," Shays told me this week. "And he could have, and it would have made a difference."
Shays said the political impact for Bush and the Republican-led Congress would be calamitous if prior to Election Day some atrocity were committed with one of the previously banned weapons. But he argued that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's ability to use it as a potential wedge issue would be diminished by the fact that neither he nor his party made the renewal of the law much of an issue either.
Shays points out that the Democrats lost 52 House seats in 1994, a phenomenon that had to do in part with the party's leadership on gun control issues in the omnibus 1994 Crime Bill. Democrats, Shays said, have not been eager to make it a top priority issue since then.
Yet the Kerry camp believes it has a potent issue for the final two months of the campaign.
"The assault weapons ban has worked for 10 years and not a single law-abiding American has lost their gun," Kerry spokesman David Wade wrote in an e-mail.
Wade said Bush "is now putting military style assault weapons on the street, even after Al Qaeda training manuals found in Afghanistan urged terrorists to buy assault weapons in the United States. Why is he making cops' jobs harder and making things easier for terrorists? This is an issue where a Democratic candidate should stand with conviction and strength, aligned with police, against the special interest Republicans who are too weak to stand up to terrorists."
The Kerry camp also points out that the senator returned from the campaign trail in March specifically to cast his vote in favor of extending the assault weapons ban and that he voted for the original bill. Campaign aides also note that the International Brotherhood of Police, which supported Bush in 2000, has endorsed Kerry this year, in part because of the senator's position on the assault weapons ban.
A clear majority of Americans have been telling pollsters for years that while they believe Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms, they also believe that right is not absolute. Therefore, they support moderate gun control measures, such as the assault weapons ban, gun show background checks and limitations on bulk buying.
A major national poll by the University of Pennsylvania's nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center in August and early September found that 68 percent of adults want Congress to extend the ban. Fifty-seven percent of people with a gun in their household supported the extension and even 32 percent of National Rifle Association members supported it.
Most political analysts agree that while solid majorities of the general public support these types of gun control measures, gun control is primarily a top-tier voting issue only for those who oppose it.
"One of the things that [Bush advisers] were probably thinking is that people who support gun control don't vote on the basis of it," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the District-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that researches issues of special concern to African Americans. "So the feeling was probably that you can pretty much do what you want with regards to gun control, and you're not going to be punished for what you do."
"Those who are intense enough to learn the details are those people who are against the ban," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. "So if it's going to hurt anyone, it will hurt Senator Kerry rather than President Bush."
The issue could be particularly resonant in key battleground states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Kerry walks a fine line between satisfying suburban women and urban voters, who overwhelmingly support the ban, and firing up suburban men and rural voters who are more likely to oppose it.
And fine lines are no place to expend political capital.