The Limits of Political Capital

Felix Salmon reads Dave Roberts being bleak about cap and trade and John Gapper observing that “the US administration has clearly decided that it simply cannot get any large-scale consolidation of regulation through Congress, given the vested interests involved” and wonders what happened to Barack Obama?

How did Obama manage to spend all his political capital so quickly? Did it all go on the stimulus bill? Wasn’t the whole point of bringing Rahm in as chief of staff that he could work constructively with Congress to pass an ambitious agenda? And isn’t Obama himself the first president since JFK to have entered the White House from the Senate? I’m not sure when everything went wrong here, but I fear that the damage is now irreparable — and that Obama’s agenda is going to be severely scaled back as a result.

I think the answer to the puzzle is simply that “political capital” is a pretty misleading metaphor. The fact of the matter is that the Senate is what it is — to wit, an institution with an enormous status quo bias, that’s also biased in favor of conservative areas. On top of that, the entire structure of the US Congress with its bicameralism and multiple overlapping committees is biased toward making it easy for concentrated interests to block reform. Between them, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand, Bill Nelson, Dick Durbin, Roland Burriss, Arlen Specter, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, Carl Levin, Amy Klobuchar, Kay Hagan, Bob Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Evan Bayh represent 50 percent of the country’s population. But that only adds up to 22 Senators — you need thirty-eight more to pass a bill.

Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that in recent years plenty of incumbent Republicans have been brought down by primary challenges from the right and as best I know zero Democrats have been brought down by primary challenges from the left. This has been a huge advantage for the Democrats in terms of winning elections — it’s an important part of the reason Democrats have these majorities. But it also means that when it comes to policymaking, Republicans have a lot of solidarity but Democratic leaders have little leverage over individual members. In other words, nobody thinks that Collin Peterson (D-MN) is going to lose his seat over badly watering down Waxman-Markey and that matters a lot more than airy considerations of capital.


The American presidency is a weird institution. If Barack Obama wants to start a war with North Korea and jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s not clear that anyone could stop him. If he wants to let cold-blooded murderers out of prison, it’s completely clear that nobody can stop him. But if he wants to implement the agenda he was elected on just a few months ago, he needs to obtain a supermajority in the United States Senate.