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Bush's Capital, And Its Costs

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page B01

President Bush could have used other metaphors to describe the opportunity his reelection gave him to pursue his agenda. He could have said that he had the wind in his sails, or a little breathing room; or that he was anticipating another honeymoon, or the chance to call in some favors. He could have talked of his legacy, his gift to the people, his place in history. Instead, he used a metaphor borrowed from the realm of finance and economics.

"Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it," he said at a Nov. 4 news conference. The choice of expression is an odd one, and not just because, as some pointed out, in economic terms, capital is usually meant to be invested, not spent.

The use of the saying also summons up the identity Bush has most assiduously avoided showing to the electorate: the capitalist and man of privilege, who has thrived not only through his own political skills but also through a mix of inherited wealth and inherited status. It doesn't call to mind the image he much prefers -- the common-tongued rancher, in work boots and jeans, clearing brush on his Texas ranch.

The phrase, a cliche of politics, has flourished again since Bush used it and will probably be reiterated next month when Congress returns and takes up the president's proposals on Social Security and taxes. Chris Suellentrop, writing for the online magazine Slate, called it "the first buzzword of the second Bush administration," and noted that, far from being a slip of the blue-blooded tongue, "political capital" is an old favorite in the W. lexicon. And the expression has been around for so long the ear doesn't necessarily register the literal meaning of capital -- money stored away -- rooted in it anymore. That Bush uses it so freely suggests how little stigma, these days, is attached to the idea of living off capital, as opposed to labor. Perhaps he'll be seen as drawing down his political 401k plan over the last four years of his political life.

Analyzing Bush's speech too closely is always a fraught business, but often a revealing one. He has the unnerving habit of seeming to speak haphazardly. Yet the same speech, scrutinized later, can appear candid and precise. Political capital is a phrase whose use could be seen in two different ways: Casual use of an old-hat expression? Or self-revelation?

Observe the embedded meanings in the phrase closely, and it is even more provocative than at first glance. Political work, the kind of work one does in elections, is all about communication, argument and persuasion. (Thrice Bush used the word "earned" in regard to his political capital.) So one definition of political capital might be the stored surplus -- or goodwill -- from that work, a reserve that lets a politician take action without having to do the usual "work," i.e. communicating, convincing and compromising.

So was Bush saying, in effect, that he was about to start "spending," meaning taking action, with little regard to any opposition or ill feeling? That was certainly how Democrats understood the basic message of the news conference -- that he would reach out to anyone . . . of like mind.

Or was Bush thinking of his political capital within more confined, Republican power circles? Was he saying that by preserving the White House for the Republicans, he felt he had a new freedom of action? It seemed as though he was saying that he did not feel indebted to certain groups -- the Christian right, the McCain centrists -- that claimed credit for his election. Instead, he takes their support as something owed to him.

The phrase "political capital" itself can be traced back to at least the middle of the 19th century, when it was generally used with the verb "to make." Making capital was a negative thing, equivalent to opportunism. One made capital out of an opponent's mistakes, or by manipulating the electorate on volatile issues. Race baiting and fear mongering were proven ways of "making political capital," and there was nothing honorable in this currency.

In one of the earliest uses of the phrase, an 1899 encyclopedia of American politics said that Democrats in the 1840s "made very little political capital" by trying to maneuver rival Whig Party congressmen into declaring their opposition to a war with Mexico that was popular in the South. Like many modern-day Democrats on Iraq, most Whigs opposed the war, but abstained on a war resolution and then voted to appropriate money to support U.S. troops who were in danger. Sound familiar?

William Safire's "Safire's New Political Dictionary" distinguishes the older, darker meaning of "making capital" from the more laudable meaning of "spending political capital" -- that is, using one's popularity to accomplish difficult goals. And "spend" is the verb Bush chose. Safire's definition suggests an element of personal sacrifice, but it's not clear that Bush's sense of how one spends political capital involves personal sacrifice. His rhetoric, at that news conference and in the days since, suggests a more mechanistic view of the exchange: The president has gathered a kind of scrip, and he means to go shopping.

Given the increase in public debt, the spiraling costs of war in Iraq and the strictures placed on the federal budget by tax cuts, any political metaphor grounded on spending raises troubling questions. Whose capital will be spent? And to whom will the benefits of this spending redound? Who will bear the costs if Bush spends his political capital unwisely? One of the big dangers, in political rhetoric, is pronoun and metaphor slippage. When Bush speaks, in generic terms, of "a president," he generally means "me." When he speaks of "spending capital," there is a fear that he may intend a literal profligacy, with "our" capital, rather than a metaphorical sacrifice of his own.

And there may be a more fundamental slippage, in his choice of words. Political capital is the raw stuff of power, and it functions differently from other forms of capital: intellectual capital based on knowledge and wisdom, artistic capital based on prescience and vision, and, ultimately, moral capital, based on reliability and trust. Political capital has no inherent virtue.

These other forms of metaphorical capital, as well as the financial sort, require verbs that bring with them a sense of collective responsibility: to conserve, to protect, to bequeath, to transfer, to manage. A politician gathers and risks his own capital; a scientist, or musician, or member of the clergy, even a financial adviser, also risks the collective capital of his or her profession.

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