Political Capital


After winning a second term fair and square (more or less), George W. Bush babbled on about the “political capital” he had gained.   He was so vociferous about this and so full of himself that one might suspect he had just learned the expression.

The concept is more difficult to master, and its uses are especially problematic when applied to outcomes of presidential elections.  Who knows how far Bush got with that?

It can be a useful concept, however.

Thus it is clear that however much political capital Bush had, he didn’t have enough to do what Wall Street and its ideologues wanted him to do.  To move aggressively against our few and feeble welfare state institutions, Social Security especially, he’d have needed a lot more than he had.

Part of the problem is just that he wasn’t a Democrat.  Democrats are better than Republicans for implementing the political agenda named for the villainous Ronald Reagan because, unlike Republicans, they can bring the opposition – themselves — along.

Indeed, it is or rather ought to be an axiom of our political culture: when a Republican president goes after the remnants of New Deal or Great Society institutions, Congressional Democrats resist.  But when a Democrat is in the White House, Democrats in Congress go along.

Not that it is hard for them to acquiesce.  At least since the Clinton days, Democrats, the vast majority, have yearned to replace the GOP as the favored party of capitalism’s grandees.   This was Bill Clinton’s dream, and also his legacy.  It is why Clinton was, to date, the best Reaganite president ever.

His assault on “welfare as we know it” was exemplary, and also typical.  He was even poised to take on Social Security before revelations of his exploits with a certain intern exhausted what political capital he had left.  Through sheer concupiscence, “that woman” did more good for her fellow Americans than Clinton’s official First Lady could dream of doing in that capacity or as a Senator or Secretary of State.

It hardly matters whether Democrats fight back against Republican presidents out of conviction or just for the sake of partisan advantage.  What matters is that they do.  This is why Bush’s political capital was spent before he could put it to ill use.

Even so, the system is set up in such a way that presidents are never cleaned out of political capital entirely; a hefty and always renewable load is a perquisite of the office.  And so it is that Bush went on to do considerable harm in his second term, adding to the many graver harms he and the eminences behind him accomplished in the aftermath of 9/11.

Bush paid a political price for his incompetence and his many policy disasters; but he, and the people around him, got off with impunity for their actionable offenses – their violations of international law, and their trashing of Constitutional protections and immunities.

For this, they have Obama’s and Eric Holder’s determination to “look forward, not back” to thank.  Along with squandering a rare historical opportunity for change, not bringing those miscreants to justice was the Obama presidency’s Original Sin.

Because his stewardship of the empire and his policies on civil liberties and the rule of law continue along the lines Bush and his most maleficent mentor, Dick Cheney, established, the Obama administration is, by now, similarly culpable.  It is one of the wonders of the electoral season just concluded that hardly anyone even remarked on this incontrovertible fact.

In any case, Barack Obama is the one with political capital now and, by all accounts, he is preparing to use it to do what Bush could not.

Bush didn’t expressly target Social Security in his 2004 campaign; his administration just assumed that winning the election gave him license to take it on.  Obama’s position is more complicated.

To his credit he gave fair warning.  Although he didn’t advertised the fact except to select audiences, Obama did declare himself a deficit hawk.  He even announced that the failed Grand Bargain of 2011 – and therefore cuts to Social Security and other cherished “entitlement” programs — would be back on the agenda in his second term.

All this was overshadowed, however, by a much more marketable pose: Obama’s proposal to restore pre-Bush marginal income tax rates on high earners.  This, he insisted, is what fairness requires.

The idea seems to be that since it is time to declare the moral equivalent of war on “the deficit” – never mind why –everybody, even those who have been making out like bandits, should chip in; everybody should pay their fair share.

What would this involve?  And why would anyone think that resurrecting Clinton era tax rates for high earners would do the trick?  These are questions Obama and Congressional Democrats never raise, and not just because any effort to answer them would expose their fraudulence.

They don’t raise these questions because they realize that getting serious about fairness would put their plans to win over corporate hearts and minds in jeopardy.  It would put the entire system in question, not just minor facets of the tax code.

Everyone understands this, at some level; it is perfectly obvious.  In addition, what fairness requires is and long has been Topic A in academic disciplines that address normative social, political and economic concerns.  Much has been learned about fairness, and related notions of justice, in consequence of the attention lavished on the concept.

Were Obama serious about fairness, he might have drawn on this body of theory.  He is certainly aware of it; it is hardly news in the educational institutions he frequented.  But then neither are due process or habeas corpus protections, and everyone knows what Obama has made of them.

Still, some of what has been learned has “trickled down” into Democratic Party ranks.  Would that the pillars of the party would take some of it on board.  Instead, they know just enough to understand that, as class warriors (on the wrong side), they don’t want to go there.

Thus the point of talking about marginal tax rates was never really to make society more fair or just or even to make the super-rich abide by some vague notion of fair play; it was to appeal to the rising class-consciousness of the ninety-nine percent.  By talking about taxing the rich, Obama was playing the “populist card.”

It would have been difficult in 2012 for a Democratic politician not at least to gesture in that direction.  The remarkable thing is how meek Obama’s gesture was.

And how shamelessly “bipartisan.”  Obama’s talk about taxing the rich – a tad more than they are taxed already – was always coupled with declarations about the need to cut back on government spending; the kind that actually serves worthwhile purposes.  Cutting spending on the military or on our rapidly metastasizing national security state never came up.

Predictably too, Obama never launched a robust defense of the austerity politics he wants to foist upon us.  That would have been, to put it mildly, unwise.

Thanks to an opposition that all potential Obama voters feared and loathed, Obama knew that the election was his to lose, notwithstanding the fact that it mattered to a sizeable minority that his ancestry is partly African, while his opponent, for all his faults, was as white as can be.

Still, had Obama made austerity his watchword, or been explicit about his determination to diminish what remains of the progress made in the middle decades of the last century, he might nevertheless have lost.

And so he kept mum.

But just as it was clear in 2008, to anyone who paid attention, that Obama would not be the hope and change president he got others to think he would be, it was similarly clear in 2012 that, like other enablers of capitalist predations, he has austerity on his mind.

That is why the Grand Bargain will be back on the agenda soon, and why Obama will use every resource at his command to get it through.  It’s how he wants to spend his political capital he picked up on November 6.

* * *

George Bush was poorly instructed; he thought political capital came in a blank check and that he could spend it as he pleased.  Obama knows better.  He understands that it can be used for some purposes and not others.

But therein lies a problem because what the constraints and opportunities are is very much in the mind of the beholder.  And where, as in presidential elections, voters are barraged by overfunded sales campaigns intended to make one or the other candidate seem more appealing, or less awful, than the other — and where there is almost no deliberation or debate, ideas are dumbed down, and basic issues are obscured or marginalized — interpretations are always contestable.

In these circumstances, the vox populi, the voice of the people, cannot possible speak clearly or unequivocally.  Interpretation is all; and the interpretation that prevails need not be the one that is most cogent or best supported by polling or other relevant evidence.

The definitive interpretation, the one that gets imposed, is the one power backs.  And no one has more power than the President of the United States.

So it was that, after the mid-term elections in 2010, when Democrats got their well-deserved “shellacking,” the Obama administration concluded, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the problem was that Obama had been too “liberal” or, what comes to almost the same thing, that he had not pursued “bipartisanship” enough.

As always, the media followed suit, and the Obama interpretation became the conventional wisdom.

That would have spelled defeat in 2012, had the Republican primaries not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the GOP has become a party of imbeciles.  Even so, Mitt Romney might still have won had he been a more nimble panderer or had he, like George Bush, come on more like Buddy Ebsen and less like a grown-up Lord Fauntleroy.

This time, it seems plain, as it also did in 2008, that the vox populi is way to the left of anything Obama proposed during the campaign, even in his most “populist” moments.  It is even clearer that the votes he got were not so much for him as against his opponent.

But, of course, he will draw the opposite conclusion, and he will do his utmost to turn his interpretation into an established fact.  Expect him therefore to proceed as if what “we, the people” indicated we want is more, not less, “bipartisanship,” and expect him to defend the Grand Bargain, or some even more miserly descendent of it, on just those grounds.

It would be far more plausible to argue that Obama now has political capital to spend on advancing the interests of the ninety-nine, not the one, percent — on change and hope, not more of the same – but it will take massive resistance on the part of the people who put him in office to make that interpretation hold.

Obama was reelected because he was the lesser evil in the minds of enough voters.  Whether or not they were right, it is urgent now that those voters take full measure of the evil he is, and struggle against him accordingly.  The problem is not just Republicans or the system or anything else Obama apologists invoked to explain away the awfulness of his first term.  The problem is also Obama himself.

* * *

That Obama’s view of how his political capital can be spent is contestable — and that his views are part of the problem, not part of the solution — is especially and tragically evident in his role as a facilitator in the latest Israeli assault on occupied Gaza.

It was never entirely clear why the Commander-in-Chief of a military force greater than those of all other countries combined had to cower before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its cognate organizations.  It is less clear now than a month ago.

Because the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, all but campaigned for Mitt Romney, Israel lost big time in the 2012 election.  Therefore the Israel lobby, which backs Netanyahu to the hilt, lost big time too.  Even if it is not quite a paper tiger, it is a lot closer to being one than it used to be.

It is therefore fair to say that Obama could have spent some of the political capital he picked up November 6 to help make the Gaza situation better.  He could have used it to force the Israelis to back off from their campaign of murder and mayhem, and perhaps even to prevent them from continuing to maintain Gaza as an open-air prison under siege.

He could have demanded, at the very least, an end to the naval blockade and an opening of the Gaza borders.

Thanks to his kill lists and drone attacks, it would be difficult for our Nobel laureate to insist that Israel obey the laws that govern international affairs.  But he could without embarrassment threaten to enforce American laws – especially the Arms Export Control Act, which expressly prohibits the use of American weapons against subject, civilian populations.

It is no surprise that he has done nothing of the sort.  Instead, he has gone on as if the Israel lobby still ran the show, blathering about Israel’s right to defend itself — against the still disorganized and poorly armed resistance of a population under siege.

This is not like imposing austerity politics; an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel – what else could Netanyahu’s objective be? — isn’t something he believes in.  But it is something he is unwilling to stop, even though he plainly can.

For this needless and easily avoided complicity in an on-going war crime and crime against humanity, the Nobel committee should demand that he return their prize.  And the lesser evilists who got him elected should demand that he spend the political capital they handed him to make the situation right.

When Israel made war on the civilian population of Gaza four years ago, Obama uttered not one critical word.   But at least back then he had the excuse that he wasn’t president yet, and that, as he put it, “we have only one president at a time.”  This time he is the president.  For the next four years, the world will have to contend with this fact on the ground.

It’s up to us to make the best of it.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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