In early December 2000 -- with the closest election since Reconstruction hanging by a dimpled chad -- Dick Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press." Reflecting Washington conventional wisdom about the likely tenor of a George W. Bush presidency, Tim Russert asked Cheney, "With a 50-50 Senate and a close, close small majority in the House, you're going to have to have a moderate, mainstream centrist governance, aren't you?"
Cheney agreeably answered, "Oh, I think so." Those four words were either one of history's stunningly bum predictions or, more likely, a stunningly deceptive example of telling the voters and Washington insiders like Russert what they wanted to hear.
Long before the September 11 attacks and the Iraq War, Bush had decided to govern as an unabashed conservative and pretend that he had won a definitive electoral victory rather than having lost the popular vote. The 43rd president disdained political timidity, in part, because he had seen firsthand the fleeting benefits that his father gained as a one-term president from his innate caution. As the younger Bush explained to me during a fall 1999 interview, "My Dad had earned enormous capital from the Gulf War, and the proper application of political capital is very important. You have to earn it, but you also have to spend it, because capital atrophies if it's not spent."
Karl Rove in his new book, "Courage and Consequence
," mocks those Democrats who expected Bush to trim his sails in early 2001 just because he won a hotly disputed election. "It is important to remember that Bush had run and won on an agenda that included providing tax relief, reforming Social Security and education, strengthening our military, and modernizing Medicare," Rove writes. "For the president-elect to cast aside his governing ideas to curry favor with the Democrats would have been wrong and foolish." In Rove's eyes, Bush deserves major historical credit for having the courage to be a "conviction politician" and to bravely face the consequences.
A powerful case can be made that Barack Obama also is a "conviction politician." As Obama declared during his outdoor acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention, "Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American." There were no hedge words in that campaign pledge, no hidden codicils insisting that health care reform had to be a bipartisan endeavor. Health care reform was one of Obama's signature campaign issues -- and not some minor position paper pledge like promising to limit agricultural subsidies to working farmers. Probably there was not a single American voter who woke up the morning after the 2008 election to announce over breakfast, "Now that Obama is elected, I am so glad that I will never have to hear about health care reform again. The issue is dead."
Unlike Bush who had to conjure up an imaginary 2000 mandate from the voters, Obama actually received one. Carrying every major state in the nation except Texas, Obama became only the second Democratic presidential candidate since FDR to win a majority of the national popular vote. It was a party victory as well as a personal one. For all the hype and hysteria over Scott Brown's Massachusetts miracle costing Obama's party its filibuster-proof 60 vote majority, the Democrats still hold more Senate seats than either party has since the 1970s.
Now just 16 months after that one-sided 2008 election, the Republicans are loudly demanding that Obama jettison his ambitious health care reform plan because somehow it violates the will of the American people. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed on ABC Sunday morning, "What I think the American people are saying to us -- stop this job-killing health care bill." On another Sunday morning show, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham begged the Democrats, "Please don't do this...I'll work with you to find a smaller bill that the American people feel more comfortable about. Let's do a field goal on health care. Let's [don't] score a touchdown by ramming it down somebody's throat."
In short, Republicans like Graham are insisting that the majority-elected Obama must temper his ambitions because of fluctuating and ambiguous polls about health care. So what if Obama's approval rating has never fallen below 47 percent in the daily Gallup tracking polls. Contrast this with Bush in 2001, who took office with only 51 percent of the American people in a CBS poll believing that he was elected legitimately. But because Bush was (wait for it) a "conviction politician," he was entitled to pursue his expansive and expensive (in budget terms) agenda starting with massive tax cuts. Rove underscores that Bush was never going to compromise, a truth that eluded most Democrats. As Rove writes with an audible sneer in his words, the Democrats "were surprised that (Bush) didn't come to them on bended knee."
Obama and the Democrats -- let's be honest here -- may pay a huge political price for their health care hubris in the 2010 and maybe even the 2012 elections. But that is how the system works. As Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, a rising star among House Republicans, said about the Democrats Tuesday on Fox News, "They have the courage of their convictions, clearly. The president and leaders in Congress, they really believe that this is the right thing to do. Whether the American people want this or not, they think it's right to do this."
That is how activist presidents like Obama deploy their political capital. As an unbending George W. Bush understood -- for better or worse -- political capital vanishes if it is hoarded and not spent.