Whatever yesterday's dramatic veto override may have done for the budget, it guaranteed a midterm political campaign in which President Reagan will try to exploit his time-tested theme of campaigning against "the budget-busters" in Washington.
Despite Reagan's declaration at a Utah political event that he was "terribly hurt" by the Senate vote, some of his advisers said privately that the defeat actually presented opportunities for the president to campaign against "the big spenders" in Congress. The more enthusiastic of these aides sounded as if they were claiming that Reagan had won a glorious defeat.
Other administration officials recognized however, that some long-term problems lurk behind the short-term opportunities.
They see the override as an augury that the administration's defense budget is in trouble in the 1983 Congress, even if Republicans do relatively well in the November elections. And they recognize that a Congress that has sampled the blood of a successful veto override may like the taste when the next vetoed budget bill comes up for action.
That other bills will be vetoed by the president is now a virtual certainty. Administration strategists expect that Congress will send the president several money bills later this month that will be "over-budget" and promptly vetoed by Reagan.
"We're going to have a lot of chances because I'm going to do a lot more vetoing," Reagan said. " . . . I'm not going to change my mind."
Reagan's track record suggests he will be as good as his word. At the time he interrupted his California vacation to veto the $14.1 billion supplemental appropriations bill, he was going against the advice of the Republican Senate leadership and two key Cabinet members, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Ever since he was a pro-business, anti-government lecturer for General Electric 30 years ago, Reagan's favorite theme has been that the federal government spends too much money, particularly for social programs.
He campaigned as a cost-cutter when he ran for governor of California in 1966 and used many of the same phrases on behalf of Republican candidates two years later, even though he had signed what was then the largest tax increase bill in the state's history.
In a 1968 interview, Reagan said he had always campaigned largely on one issue -- cutting the size and growth of government. It has been his favorite issue ever since, and the one with which he feels most comfortable.
Reagan is significantly more comfortable as a campaigner when he sticks to issues he regards as "his." Both the president and his advisers believe that Reagan strikes responsive chords among the electorate when he is posing as the champion of reduced budgets and slower government growth.
But Reagan faces some significant obstacles this time in redrawing the portrait of himself as a knight whose mission is to slay the dragon of big spending.
For one thing, even the least skillful Democratic campaigner will be able to point out that significant numbers of Republicans -- including some whom Reagan would very much like to see reelected -- voted to override their own president. For another, the "budget-busting" bill the president vetoed was lower than the one he recommended, although the cuts the Congress made were in the defense portion rather than in social programs.
One Republican source said yesterday that he feared the president may have lost the ground on the "fairness issue" that he had regained on the $98.3 billion tax bill that both the administration and the House Democratic leadership had advertised as a a "tax reform" measure.
Surveys taken for the White House over a long period have shown that the public perception of the president as having strong leadership qualities is closely related to his success with Congress. If this standard holds, a veto override is likely to dent this reputation for leadership.
The veto override suggested to one Republican close to the administration that the White House may have paid a price for past presidential wooings of reluctant congressmen.
"The White House control is fraying around the edges and the president, by going to Utah, gave the impression he wasn't all that interested," said this Republican. "The president has called so many congressmen that they have come to expect it as a matter of course and don't think he's serious unless they get a personal phone call or an invitation to Camp David."
But Reagan is plenty serious about hewing to his chosen course, no matter what the Congress does. Laying down the themes of his campaign which he and the Congress have chosen, Reagan said at a GOP rally in Utah yesterday:
"I want to tell you something. They better practice at that overriding vetoes because they're going to get a chance to do that every time they send an appropriation down that is over the budget. I'm going to veto it again."