This morning, Jonathan Chait metaphorically scratches his head, Nominating Hagel Most Un-Obama Thing Ever. He can’t understand this nomination given that (1) Hagel will be a hard sell and (2) Obama doesn’t much listen to his advisers anyway. It is interesting speculation, but I wouldn’t have even thought about it had he not written, “Why waste political capital picking a fight that isn’t essential to any policy goals?”
This brought to mind something that has been on my mind for a while, as in articles like, Bipartisan Consensus Can Bite Me. I’m afraid that just like Santa Claus and most conceptions of God, “Political Capital” is a myth. I think it is just an idea that Villagers find comforting. It is a neat narrative in which one can straightjacket a political fight. Otherwise, it is just bullshit.
Let’s go back to late 2004, after Bush Jr was re-elected. He said, “I earned capital in the political campaign and I intend to spend it.” What was this thing that Bush intended to spend? It is usually said that political capital is some kind of mandate from the masses. But that is clearly not what Bush meant. He got a mandate to fuck the poor and kill the gays. But he used his political capital to privatize Social Security. One could say that this proves the point, but does anyone really think if Bush had decided to use his political capital destroying food stamps and Medicaid that he would have succeeded any better? The truth was that Bush’s political capital didn’t exist.
Let’s look at more recent events: the Fiscal Cliff. Obama didn’t win that fight because the people who voted for him demanded it. He won it because everyone knew that in the new year he would still be president. Tax rates were going up. Boehner took the Fiscal Cliff deal because it was the best deal that he felt he could get. He didn’t fold because of some magic political capital that Obama could wave over him.
There is no doubt that public opinion does affect how politicians act. Even politicians in small safe districts have to worry that larger political trends may end up making them look stupid, out of touch, or just cruel. But beyond that, they really don’t care. If they did, then everyone in the House would now be a Democrat: after all, Obama won a mandate and the associated political capital. But they don’t, because presidential elections have consequences—for who’s in the White House. They don’t have much consequence for the Representative from the Third District of California.