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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Parallel political capitals

In the UK, Channel 4 is replaying season 4 episodes of West Wing, and this past week it was “Swiss Diplomacy.” In the parallel universe of the Bartlet White House, the newly reelected president is riding high after his reelection:
"Well, the votes have been counted and the people have spoken and it's clear that their will is for me to be able to do and have anything I want. . . . Well, the President of Turkmenistan just extended the date of adolescence to 25. So, things like that."

"I think he also renamed the month of January after himself," Leo mentions.

"That's just greedy. Real power is knowing when to leave a little something on the table. . . . Patient's bill of rights, prescription drugs, keeping the economy growing, find a surplus again, keep the surplus growing, use the surplus to build schools. . . ."
Shifting to the real world of the Bush White House, over the past few days we’ve heard somewhat similar thoughts, although the sardonic wit of Jeb Bartlet has been replaced by the smirk assuredness of George W’s latest favorite phrase: spending “political capital”.

I do not do much Bush-watching over here. There are too many more interesting things for me to try to understand, including how both Tony Blair and Michael Howard are able to maintain their hold on their respective political parties. But I found it interesting that Bush chose to use the phrase "political capital" in a post-election press conference to explain what he was willing to do to pursue some policy objective. He would do it by spending the “political capital” he accumulated as a result of his electoral victory. It was obvious from the self-satisfied look on his face at the time that he was putting a newly learned concept to work. Here was a political idea he could work with, one he understood from his days in business. A simple idea: the election gave him more than just a victory; it earned him political capital – some surplus value that he can now invest where he needed to. As they say here in Northern Ireland (and in the south), brilliant!

But as it turned out, Bush was not quite finished with the phrase, for it showed up once again on Friday in the press conference he held with Tony Blair after five hours of chatting about world affairs. There the phrase emerged again, this time involving the Middle East and the US willingness to spend its “political capital” to move the peace process forward. And again there was that look on Bush’s face reflecting the conceit of empowered wisdom he assumes comes from his reelection. The President of Turkmenistan might be able to extend the age of adolescence, but George W was going to spend his political capital – that is, the political capital of the US – on bringing peace to a region that has already consumed the political investments of many regimes for many decades.

What is ironic about Bush’s idea of using US political capital on international affairs is that his administration had already spent much of what was in the bank when he took office back in 2001. While perhaps gaining come political capital in the election for policies and programs on his domestic agenda, Bush seems oblivious to the fact that the US gained little or nothing in the global political market with his reelection. If anything, the disappointment with his victory seems almost universal in Europe, and there are already signs in the recent events surrounding Arafat’s health problems and death that France will take advantage of the situation. It is little wonder that Blair seemed so somber throughout his meetings with Bush, for he understands that his own position as the one European leader with a “special relationship” with the White House is a burden rather than a benefit. And knowing George W as well as he does, Blair probably is well aware that there is nothing that can be done to make the president see the world in a more realistic light.

Shifting back to the post-election Bartlet White House, Leo realizes that he has his hands full. Viewing a press conference session in which giddy president is talking about “January,” he turns to his guest (the Swiss ambassador) to tell him that he will discuss an issue with the Bartlet when he returns. He’ll raise the question, he says, with ". . . the President, Gerneralismo --- whatever he comes back as."

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