Many popular political leaders hoard their political capital. For lame duck leaders, that is a sign of vanity. It is the mark of greatness to be willing to spend your remaining political capital on something important rather than good press. Harry Truman left office scorned and unloved. History has been very kind to him. He spent all of his political capital, his account so depleted by Korea that he did not have enough to run for re-election in 1952.
Reagan and Clinton, on the other hand, left office popular, which to me is a great failing. They retired rich in political capital. What a waste.
Bush will not waste his. As he said explicitly in his Thursday news conference, ``I earned capital on the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.'' After all, in his first term, with his political career at stake, he undertook Iraq, something no one asked him to do and that promised only terrible political risk. He knew that he was wagering his presidency, but did it nonetheless because he thought it necessary for the safety of the nation.
If he did not hoard his political capital then, he will not now. Knowing he will never again run for office, he is going to attempt several large things, most notably reforming Social Security and perhaps radically simplifying the tax code. He was careful to mention both in his speech on Wednesday when he claimed the election, and in his news conference Thursday when he claimed his mandate.
These tasks carry such political risk that politicians rarely talk about them, let alone do them. In his first term, Bush devoted no political capital to these domestic issues because he had spent it all on Afghanistan and Iraq. With a second term and a solid mandate, his account is replenished. He is not a man to sit on it, collecting coupons.
Whatever you think of Bush, he can hardly be accused of playing small ball. His first term was all about large projects. And this time he has a popular mandate, increased control of both houses of Congress, no worry about re-election, and obvious and long-avoided generational problems staring the country right in the face.
Great leaders are willing to retire unloved and unpopular as the price for great exertion. Bush appears bent on exertion.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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