Effective leadership depends on the political capital leaders have to spend. Some leaders start with a large supply; some with little. Leaders can only act if they have the capital to reinforce their decisions. Fighting battles drains capital. Winning them can help build it. John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, charted it on a graph: “You come into office at zero years, and you’ve got eight years ahead of you, hopefully.” The key, he told Kennedy, was lasting the eight years, accomplishing as much as possible, and spending all the political capital as he walked out the door. It’s impossible to act effectively without political capital; political capital unused is opportunity forgone.
Bush held that as a central principle of leadership. He watched his father’s painful lesson. With his Gulf War triumph, Bush 41’s approval rating soared to 91 percent. He looked virtually unbeatable, with the presidential election just a year away. But he did not put his political capital to work. It slowly eroded, and by November 2002, Bill Clinton handily defeated him.
From his father’s experience, Bush drew an important conclusion: Capital is useful only to the degree it can help build more support—it must be used or it will be lost. Pressed by USA Today’s Walter Shapiro to talk about his father’s failed presidential reelection campaign, he explained: “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.”
In a typically Bush case of underlining his message by repeating it constantly, he told the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board the same thing in almost precisely the same words. The importance of building capital, investing it, and gaining a larger return to support even more decisions is a central tenet of his style.
Chief executives do not start with a large stock of capital. If they’re lucky, the process that selected them provides a small starter supply, but their first steps can quickly erode that away. Clinton’s decision to advance recognition of gays in the military, for example, began undermining his support within his first weeks as president. But if earning capital is hard, not using the capital at hand is worse. If it’s not spent, it dwindles, and there’s no central bank from which to borrow more. Only by investing and spending capital can it grow.
Bush saw what happened when his father failed to invest and spend. He believed that Clinton dissipated his capital into too many areas—he wanted to be both the environmental president and the education president. Bush’s instincts had long been to focus sharply but carefully on a narrow agenda on which he could produce victories—and then use those victories to build support for bigger issues.
In his first race for governor, he hammered away on his four basic themes: juvenile justice reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and education reform. When he became governor, as one reporter explained, “It was as if everyone had underestimated him and by the time they wised up he was in control.” He championed each of those issues and built a successful, ambitious legislative agenda in a state where the governor starts with little political capital.
In Bush’s 1998 reelection bid, “he and Rove went for broke,” Washington Post columnist David S. Broder wrote. He bombarded potential supporters by mail and phone. He not only won reelection by a margin of two to one, but also brought the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller positions from Democratic hands into the Republican camp. And, of course, he rode his reelection success to the presidency.
All the while, people continued to underestimate him. Comedians poked fun at his mangled syntax—and he often joined in. After his election, Molly Ivins couldn’t resist writing, “O.K., he’s not the brightest porch light on the block.” Of course, he never claimed to be.
He was only an average student, and he struggled during the 2000 campaign to master the intricacies of diplomacy. He overcame his limitations by building a strong staff, especially in foreign policy—people who knew more than he did about each of their subjects. But he worked hard to build them into a coherent team and he never let them forget who was boss. If he wasn’t the brightest porch light on the block, he proved he was bright enough to be elected president of the United States.
Bush was the living embodiment of Peter F. Drucker’s dictum: “To be effective is the job of the executive.” Drucker argues that “there seems to be little correlation between a man’s effectiveness and his intelligence.” In fact, “Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that brilliant insight is not by itself achievement.”
Bush defined success as being effective. And being effective was defining his agenda and putting it into place. He nurtured his capital to get the job done—and in doing the job, he saw his capital increase. In mid-year 2002, his public support was high. With the 2002 midterm election approaching, and with considerable domestic concern about a possible war with Iraq, Democrats were nipping at his heels. He had the choice of carefully husbanding his capital—or investing it heavily. He had seen what happened to his father’s huge reservoir, and he determined he would not follow the same path. For Bush 43, the choice was to spend the capital to create even more of it.