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The Paradox of Political Capital

If the Washington Post is correct that the stimulus bill is going to be significantly pared down in the Senate — possibly deducting about $200 billion from its total and making the ratio of spending programs to tax cuts closer to 1:1 — this will be viewed as a moral victory for the Republicans. I think that’s a fair assessment. The President remains very popular and the stimulus bill started out that way too, although we can debate how popular it remains now. And yet — with the important caveat that there are many more chapters to be written in this saga — the final bill is likely to come out looking closer to what the Greg Mankiw‘s of the world might have advocated for and less the Paul Krugman’s.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this would happen once the details of the bill became known and the Republicans began to pick over them like vultures. Perhaps the bill could have been better written. Still, in essentially passing off both narrative and literal control of the contents of the package to the Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration may have played it too cute by half. Obama is popular; Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren’t. The trajectory of the bill might have been different if Obama had devoted a prime time speech toward selling it, with graphs and pie charts and the like. But there hasn’t been a Big Obama Moment like that — a show of force — something that really resonated outside the Beltway. The closest Obama came, oddly enough, was during his inaugural address, but the references to the stimulus there were abstract, oblique.

The upside is that Obama himself is likely to emerge from the whole affair relatively unscathed. This might count as a victory for the Republicans on K Street — but less so on main street, which has not been sweating all the details, and will still see a very large bill passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the White House. This brings us, however, to the conundrum mentioned in the title. If Obama is not ready to use his political capital for fear that he’ll lose it, then what good does it do him in the first place?

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.