Political capital is the influence and good will that a politician has obtained through electoral success, earning respect or inciting trepidation among peers, scoring political points with others, or popularity with the public.
Political capital can be gained or spent. It is gained by improving one's political stature with allies and adversaries. It is spent by accomplishing difficult goals by overcoming intense opposition, sometimes incurring bitterness afterwards. Similar to real capital, political capital can be wasted by poor strategic decision, ineffectiveness, and incompetence.
In elections, the winners gain political capital simply by prevailing. But in other political contests, it is not always immediately clear whether political capital was gained or lost. Winning can cause more animosity than what was politically gained, in which case the victor spent political capital rather than acquire it. Losing can build political capital if the cause was just and sympathies accrue based on the effort.
Example: Nuclear option by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
On April 6, 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the nuclear option to overcome the filibuster by Democrats to the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Was political capital gained or lost with that action by GOP leader McConnell?
Certainly political capital was spent, and bitterness by both Democratic Senators and their base of millions of voters resulted from the action. On the other side of the ledger, some Republicans felt it gained authority for their Party.
- Schlafly, Phyllis (01-05-2005) Spending Bush's "Political Capital"