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Bush's Capital, And Its Costs

Before he entered politics, during his years in business, Bush's ability to manage capital -- the ordinary sort, measured in dollars and cents -- was undistinguished. Indeed, Bush's business career was built almost entirely on political capital borrowed from his father. Bush brought very little capital of any other sort to the table. Even Bush's earlier political career drew on his father's good name and credit.

And while he would like to argue that this last election is a mark of voter trust -- hence moral capital -- it is a trust felt by a bare majority of the electorate, and softened by a good deal of concern, even among some of his strong supporters, about how he has handled the economy and the war.

A president's second term traditionally brings with it a new metaphorical economy -- the economics of the legacy -- which is very different from everything implied by Bush's mechanistic approach to how one "spends" political capital. It's not clear that a legacy can simply be "bought" by spending political capital, especially if that transaction doesn't involve other inherently meaningful kinds of cultural currency. A legacy is usually measured out in all those other kinds of capital -- trust, admiration, respect, authority -- that are not so easily amassed or acquired as political capital.

Bush has arrived at his second term at a time in American history when moral and intellectual and artistic capital may be at historic lows -- in part because he and his political supporters have devalued them. Cultural elites are mocked; dissenting academics are marginalized; scientists bearing facts that are troublesome to policymakers are decried or ignored. Democrats, analyzing what went wrong in the last election, might try out this thesis: Bush and his supporters went after John Kerry's moral and intellectual capital, attacking precisely those things -- service to his country, intellect -- that Kerry might have thought was money in the bank.

Bush is not solely responsible for this trend, but he has used it to his advantage. We end up with what might be called the Colin Powell effect -- people with great moral capital but afraid to use it -- or the Walter Cronkite phenomenon -- people find that the moment they try to trade on their moral capital, it's suddenly worthless. If you're not loaded with political capital, you might as well be Oprah Winfrey, the most electable woman in America so long as she never runs for office.

A society that respects only political capital ends up with cynical leadership. If you can undermine trust, which is the basis of all currencies, you are left with only the raw power that flows from wealth and public office.

It is in this impoverished environment that Bush will shop for a legacy. If the term "spending political capital" sounded ominous to some ears, perhaps it's because it suggests that there may be no intention to leave a legacy in the traditional sense -- a gift to posterity, shared by all -- but rather a long "spending down" that enriches only a few. Perhaps Bush was using the phrase in the positive sense, as defined by Safire, and will spend from his personal political assets for the public gain. But for a moment, if you studied the swagger and the triumphal tone of voice, it felt more like Bush had just won a round of "Wheel of Fortune" and was ready for his buying spree.

In a flash you saw a sobering possibility. When he said he had political capital and he meant to spend it, he meant just that. The atmosphere of his press conference was light, even jovial, with a touch of defiance. And yet he had attained power without trust, victory without consensus, "capital" without "wealth."

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Phil Kennicott, a Style staff writer, is The Post's culture critic.

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