How to be president 101: Political Capital

Somewhere in the White House sits a giant sheet of posterboard with “CAMPAIGN PROMISES” scribbled across the top.  Each morning I imagine Donald Trump wakes up, looks at it like it’s the queen’s mirror from Snow White and thinks, “which of you suckers can I check off today? Muslim ban. Check. The Wall. Check. Repeal Obamacare and expand the military. Check and check.”

As time goes on and this list dwindles, Trump will undoubtedly see himself as the pinnacle of a successful president.  He’ll tell his supporters that unlike a normal politician, he actually delivered on his promises.  But is that really a good thing for him?  Does turning every campaign gaffe into national policy make for a successful leader?

There is a reason that political leaders don’t come in to office and rush to complete their entire agenda in the first 100 days. Two words: political capital.

Political capital is the nerd equivalent of swag. It is the length of the leash, the slack in a bungee cord, the gravitational pull of public opinion.

During the honeymoon phase of an administration, a new president has a lot of political capital, but it can be a fleeting beast. Back in 2009, President Obama was riding high, he had an approval rating in the high 50’s and majorities in both halls of Congress.  He had campaigned on two big ideas – healthcare and immigration reform.  But armed with staff of political veterans – including David Axelrod, Jim Messina, and Pete Rouse – Obama knew that only enough capital existed for one of those two achievements.

Immigration reform had actually been a possibility under Bush, but never made it across the finish line, so the calculation was made that it could wait. Instead, Obama pushed for the Affordable Care Act. Republican opposition was fierce, and less than a year later, Obama had lost his House majority from which he would never recover.

In a recent interview on the podcast “Keepin’ It 1600” Obama talked about how many freshman House members went out on a limb for him, voted for the ACA, and then lost their seats. That is what political capital can do for you.

Trump should be wise to heed this lesson, though the path he is on will be like death by a thousand cuts rather than the scorched earth bombing Obama experienced.

The first few weeks of the Trump Administration have been marked by constant controversy to the point it feels like we have been under his leadership for years already – with the gray hair to prove it.  All during the transition, Republican leaders still stood by his side, defending him when they could and simply staying silent when he really went beyond the pale.

This type of honeymoon will last for a bit, but if Trump’s approval numbers continue to submarine, his staff continue to play fast and loose with ethics rules, and the economy doesn’t take off, lawmakers will flee him in droves.

You’re starting to see it already. This past weekend John McCain, who jumped right under the covers with Trump during the campaign despite being mocked by him, went to Germany and gave a speech absolutely obliterating Trump’s worldview. Members of the same party don’t do this unless something is serious amiss.

McCain’s foray into resistance won’t be the last. Trump currently is governing by executive power (yes, I know it is early) and doesn’t appear particularly engaged in Congress.  This is another way to deplete his political capital regardless of scandal.

One of Democrat’s biggest complaints about President Obama was that he never engaged Congress when pursuing new agenda items, a philosophy epitomized by his 2014 declaration that he can get things done with the use of “a pen and a phone.”  As a result, when he did come calling, they were less willing to engage and be helpful. Back in their districts, they were hearing disdain with his policies, but they felt powerless to shape them.  This feeling led to resentment less willingness to cooperate.

Trump ought to be a student of history and heed this lesson.  If he continues to try and push major – and unpopular – agenda items via Executive Order he will find himself on an island politically.

He will not only see his agenda flounder – caveat… if he has one – but he may see himself more vulnerable to investigations by Congress.

Right now, there is plenty that should warrant a congressional investigation of Trump’s activities. Remember, the Republicans held 8 separate investigations of Benghazi at a cost of over $7 million dollars all in order to expose Hillary Clinton’s emails and weaken her, so don’t underestimate how powerful they can be when they want to.

If Republicans in the Senate are the canaries, Republicans in the House are the miners. We’ve already seen a handful of Senators including Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and others ask for investigations into the Russian / Trump contacts, but so far Jason “Profiles in Courage” Chaffetz has held his tongue.  

Chaffetz will continue to search for his spine as long as Trump’s political capital remains at acceptable levels. But, if he starts losing the support of Republicans and swing state Republicans start to appear vulnerable, Chaffetz will eventually find a reason to care about Russian interference.

Trump’s personality is part of the problem because everyone knows it isn’t in his nature to back down. But if his political capital were poker chips, he’d be in danger of going out just by anteing up. If I were advising Trump, I’d tell him to back off the immigration orders and ACA repeal and instead start floating options for infrastructure projects. He can do those things if he wants, but he should build good will with Democrats first instead of rallying their base to the point so that bipartisanship is impossible.

Obama lost all his political capital upending the healthcare system, what makes Trump think that his story will end any differently? In addition, Trump didn’t win the election because of hard-line Breitbart readers who want to end Islam. He won because blue-collar voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania couldn’t stand to hear “Fight Song” even more goddamn time.

Trump’s presidency may be listing, but it doesn’t have to sink.  If he focuses on rebuilding ties with Republicans in the Senate, proposes legislation that does not automatically trigger the gag reflex of 60% of the country, and stops attacking judges and writers, he could slowly rebuild his dwindling pile of chips.

Four years is a long time, and members of Congress have the power to make that time as productive or ineffective as they want for a president.  If Trump is popular, they’ll work with him, but Mar-a-Lago turns into a slush fund, protests continue to stall traffic in Lexington, and lawsuits start piling up, Trump will be reduced to nothing more than a another guy yelling at a television in a bathrobe.

Follow on Twitter @EighteenthandU

Picture credit: Zazzle.com
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