At his first post-reelection news conference, President Bush remarked, "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."
Political capital is a vague concept. Yet no one can doubt the gist of the President's meaning. Clearly, he believes he can now get his way politically in Washington. When "capital" is used in the political context, it means an advantage, or an accumulations of favors, or influence, that will give its holder political sway.
Bush's 2004 victory, however, has given him only a slight bit of additional political capital. Rhetoric notwithstanding, he is not, politically speaking, a wealthy man. In truth, he was politically bankrupt after 2000, and he is not all that much stronger today.
Just check the historical record, if you will. Especially given his claim to be a "wartime" president, Bush's victory rings as hollow as our history has to offer. The mainstream news media has played it as a big win. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. Puffery, pretension, and propaganda may create the image of political capital but these illusions can vanish quickly.
Bush's Nonexistent Mandate
By all historical standards for an incumbent president, Bush merely (and barely) retained his job in 2004. He certainly did not receive the mandate some of his supporters have claimed for him. To the contrary, as many of them realize, Bush has almost no mandate whatsoever. Talk of political capital, then, is pure political posturing -- just as it was in 2000, and after the 2002 mid-term elections (where the GOP recaptured the Senate).
A political mandate, like a legal mandate, is a clear directive, a command to take a given action. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower received 55.1 percent of the vote, and 353 more electoral college votes more than his opponent. He used this genuine mandate to end American's war in Korea; the issue had been central to his campaign.
Similarly, in 1964 Lyndon Johnson (with 61.1 percent of the vote, and 434 more electoral votes than his challenger) obtained a mandate to end racial discrimination in the United States. Race relations had been a central campaign issue, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and in the long wake of Brown v. Board of Education. In addition, Johnson was understood as continuing the legacy of John F. Kennedy, who had enabled strong federal enforcement of civil rights in the South.
Now compare Bush's claim for a mandate: He received 51% of the popular vote, and only 34 more electoral college vote than his challenger. This tiny edge is no mandate, and underwhelming political capital for an incumbent.
To make matters worse, the very issues Bush claims to have a mandate to address -- selecting conservative judges, partially privatizing Social Security, and revising the tax code -- were barely mentioned during the presidential campaign.
Bush's Showing Is Especially Weak Given The Advantage of Incumbency
Bush's showing was even poorer in light of the fact that he was an incumbent President. All he did was barely manage to keep his job.
If his political capital is viewed in its true historical context, as it should be, Bush accumulated almost none in 2004. Not since his 2000 squeaker has any incumbent president won with so few electors as Bush received in 2004. (In 2000, Bush obtained 271 electoral votes - only one more than is necessary to win, and only five more than his opponent Al Gore, who had 266 and won the popular vote besides.)
The historical record makes the point: In 1940, Roosevelt won over Willkie, 449- 99 (garnering 84% of the electoral college vote). In 1944, FDR topped Dewey 432-99 (81%). In 1948, Truman again beat Dewey, 303-189 (57%) -- with Strom Thurmond getting 39 electoral votes. In 1956, Eisenhower beat Stevenson 457-73 (85%). In 1972, Nixon prevailed over McGovern 520-17 (96%). In 1984, Reagan overwhelmed Mondale, 525-13 (97%). In 1996, Clinton beat Dole 379-159 (70%).
Now look at 2004's election. Bush beat Kerry only 286-252 (54% of the electoral college). This win is simply dwarfed by those of his predecessor incumbent Presidents.
Meanwhile, Bush's popular vote (at this time) shows a mere three percent point win - 51% to Kerry's 48%. Again, no modern incumbent has survived with such a tiny gap between his percentage of the popular vote, and that of his opponent: Clinton had 9%, Reagan 18%, Nixon 23%, LBJ 22%, Truman 4%, and FDR 8%, 10% and 24%.
In sum, Bush's showing was exceptionally weak for a winner, and historically weak for an incumbent. It is fair to say Bush is one of the weakest election victors in our history - again.
Bush's Thin Political Capital In The Congress
The 2004 election gave the GOP only a few additional seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A shift of a few seats is far from a national mandate. In addition, since Bush already had a majority in both the House and Senate, he can hardly be said to have gained true political capital in the Congress.
In the House, it appears the GOP will add at least five new seats, if not seven. As for the Senate, the Republicans did gain four seats -- giving them 55 senators versus the 44 Democrats plus one independent who votes with the Democrats. But four Republican moderates are returning: Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, along with Maine's Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Also, one of the Democrats who's out -- Zell Miller -- typically voted Republican before his retirement.
Republicans have at best a soft majority, but not control of the Senate. To control the Senate requires sufficient votes to stop a filibuster - or 60 votes. And clearly the Senate, with the power to confirm the President's judicial nominations, is seen as vital to the Republicans, who seek to tilt the entire federal judiciary to the right - even if Bush has neither a mandate, nor the political capital, to do so.
Controlling Senate Filibusters In Confirmation Proceedings
In Washington, there is now serious talk of the GOP majority's "going nuclear," since the President does not have enough votes to control the Senate. As I discussed in a previous column, that means they may make a bid to change the Senate Rules to allow a simple majority to cut off a filibuster regarding judicial confirmation proceedings.
Former Majority Leader, and current Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is one who favors the "nuclear" option. His strategy would be to request that the Senate's parliamentarian reject Democratic filibusters regarding judicial confirmations as unconstitutional. Republicans believe the parliamentarian, who works for them, will rule for them - and if he does, their simple majority of 51 would suffice to uphold his ruling.
Similarly Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in a recent speech to the Federalist Society, complained that Democrats were obstructing the selection of Bush's hard-right conservative and ideological judges, and he was not going to let them continue. Frist accuses the Democrats of unprecedented action in filibustering judicial nominations. But that's nonsense: In 1968, Nixon got Senate Republicans to filibuster and successfully block President Lyndon Johnson's nominee for Chief Justice, Abe Fortas.
Frist would not have given his speech if he wasn't concerned about his ability to force the President's will on the Senate (and nation). If Bush and the GOP really had a mandate and political capital, they'd be in a position to pack the High Court with conservative ideologues.
With court appointments a little-discussed campaign issue, and Senate Republicans far from the magic 60 votes, any claim of a mandate is implausible at best. And if the Republicans do wrest filibuster power away from Democrats to fast-track their nominees into any High Court vacancies, it will merely be a triumph of tricky legal and constitutional strategy - not a triumph of the people's will, as expressed in a mandate.
But this I do know. Going nuclear will cost Bush every bit of political capital he has in the Senate. In fact, the fallout will forever change the Senate -- just as the GOP has, in less than a decade, remade the House of Representatives into a body that resembles the Russian Duma.
The Liabilities That Will Predictably Sap Bush's Capital
When one turns from Bush's few political assets to his liabilities, the precarious state of his political balance sheet becomes apparent. He has major liabilities. Most are of his own making. None are under his control.
First, there is the continuing cost of anti-terrorism measures. In Osama bin Laden's November 1 taped message he explained that Al Qaeda's policy is to "bleed America to the point of bankruptcy." That tactic, he noted, was drawn from the 1980s Afghan Mujahedeen, with whom he fought - and who "bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat."
Bush has offered no rational explanation of how his endless war on terrorism can be won, and has all but admitted it can't be. As long as Bush continues to take this position, continuing anti-terrorism expenses, and companion deficits, will be inevitable.
Second, there is the Iraq war: It's killing Americans and further draining our resources, while at the same time, proving to be a recruiting dream for terrorism organizers. The New Republic had it right when it wrote that "[h]onest conservatives, even those who admire President Bush, know he didn't earn a second term. They know he staked his presidency on a catastrophe, and that, by all rights, Iraq should be his political epitaph." Put another way, Bush has yet to pay the piper for his Iraqi war, but sooner or later that debt must be paid.
Third, there are the humongous deficits Bush has created. True conservatives believe Bush's out-of-control deficit spending must be stopped - and some felt so strongly that they even said, pre-election, that he should not be given a second term. Those who held their tongue will speak now, and Bush will pay the cost. Many are determined to halt Bush's programs (further spending and additional tax cuts) if they will further grow the deficits.
Fourth, there is the current, deep foreign policy schism within the ranks of the GOP. Traditional conservatives oppose the Administration's neoconservative foreign policy. The title of Pat Buchanan's latest book says it all: Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency.
Fifth, and finally, while Bush may have won the election battle, his war with Senator Kerry is anything but over. As The Washington Post reported, Kerry "plans to use his Senate seat and long lists of supporters to remain a major voice in American politics despite losing the presidential race last Tuesday, and he is assessing the feasibility of trying again in 2008."
Vice President Al Gore faded from public life after Bush defeated him in 2004. Kerry, however, seems to be planning a very different path. Having defeated the President in three presidential debates, garnered the support of almost half of the nation's voters, and made himself nationally known to all, Kerry will be an opponent to contend with, for Bush in the Senate, and for the GOP in 2008, if he chooses to run.
In light of all these realities - all of them liabilities for Bush -- Bush's claim to new political capital is likely to prove to be fool's gold. Indeed, if the GOP should lose control of the Senate in 2006, Bush and Cheney will be in dire straits. They have accumulated a reservoir of ill will that could sink them.
This presidency does not -- all claims to the contrary -- have a strong political balance sheet. Bush had best spend cautiously the little capital he possesses.
John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.