As President Bush crisscrosses the country in these final days before the midterm election, hitting as many as five states a day, he is campaigning as if his own future were at stake. And in many ways, it is.
Though not on the ballot himself, Bush has as much to gain or lose Tuesday as anybody. The outcome of governors' races will shape the contours of the 2004 presidential election. The outcome of House and particularly Senate races will determine the fate of his legislative agenda for the rest of his term. And the fortunes of his friends and allies on the ballot will provide clues about Bush's standing and the type of reelection campaign he must run.
"What happens Tuesday is going to have a huge impact on his election in 2004," said Craig Smith, a White House political director in the Clinton administration. "What impact that has, we don't know, but his political life for the next two years will be shaped Tuesday."
Bush's polling coordinator, Republican consultant Matthew Dowd, is less convinced next week's results will say much about the 2004 election. But, he said, they will "have a whole bunch to do with getting his agenda through," and, "rightly or wrongly, we're going to be judged based on the results of those midterms."
The outcome is so important to Bush that he has, in the view of a number of strategists, put his short-term standing in jeopardy. His frenetic campaigning has removed attention from Iraq and terrorism and may be undermining Bush's image as a nondivisive figure, polls indicate. A series of surveys has shown sharp and quick drops in the president's popularity, prompting political strategist Dick Morris to opine in the New York Post that "by campaigning for Republican candidates around the nation, Bush seems to be undermining the case for a military emergency."
Bush acknowledges his stake in the election. Campaigning yesterday in Pennsylvania for Rep. George W. Gekas, Bush said: "Let's win one for George W. I'm talking about both George W.'s on the stage." In Maine last week, he said he takes "a keen interest in these elections" because he wants "a Congress with which I can work."
The White House has positioned Bush to claim victory no matter what happens Tuesday, pointing out that he will almost certainly defy the tradition of big midterm losses for an incumbent president's party; that outcome is pretty much a given because Bush did not have "coattails" in the 2000 election and therefore Republicans have fewer vulnerable first-term House members to defend.
If Republicans gain seats in the House or control of the Senate, the White House is prepared to call it an endorsement of Bush. If they lose seats in the House or fail to recover the Senate, Bush aides will say the election was resolved on local issues. "I think in some places it's going to be a reflection of local circumstances; in others, it may be a reflection of the president's message," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
But while hedging bets on the outcome, Bush is very much rolling the dice by being so actively involved. Not only has the president been barnstorming the country to boost GOP candidates, but his vice president, wife and a gaggle of advisers have been doing the same. Republican strategists say Bush would get credit or blame for Tuesday's results regardless of how much he campaigns, and they argue that any short-term damage to the president's standing would be justified by the long-term payoff of unified control of Congress. "You don't win unless you bet," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.
The most immediate interest Bush has is that the election will determine the fate of his legislative agenda and appointments. If Republicans recapture the Senate while keeping the House, Democrats would be unable to counter Bush and his agenda would be revived. Judicial nominees, now bottled up, would be approved rapidly. While Bush would likely be forced to negotiate judicial choices if Democrats keep control of the Senate, he can rely on approval for his conservative slate of judges if Republicans gain the majority. "One way to make sure our judges get approved on a timely basis is to change the leadership in the United States Senate," Bush said at a rally yesterday morning.
If Republicans gain control of Congress, Democrats would also lose their ability to launch investigations of the administration, potentially jeopardizing probes into Enron and corporate wrongdoing and the administration's energy policies. Congress would likely present Bush with his preferred versions of unfinished legislation from the past two years dealing with homeland security, terrorism insurance, patients rights, energy and prescription drugs. Chances would improve for efforts to extend last year's tax cuts, curtail jury awards and overhaul Medicare.
"It's a difference of night and day," said GOP strategist Charles R. Black Jr. "If Republicans win the Senate, you get some pretty significant legislation through." And if Democrats keep the Senate? "I think it's hard to expect much to happen."
Still, even the most optimistic Republican forecast would not give Bush enough of a cushion in the Senate to overcome Democratic filibusters. Bush would almost certainly lack the governing majority he would need to launch a major overhaul of the tax code or a partial privatization of Social Security. Also, the likelihood of conflict in Iraq and the war on terrorism could crowd out other issues.
"There's not going to be a dramatic change even if the Republicans seize control of the Hill," said a GOP Senate aide. "Unless you have a significant cushion in the Senate, it's still very difficult to pass your agenda."
Tuesday's results will also have consequences for Bush's 2004 reelection bid, although they are more difficult to predict. Bush polling coordinator Dowd pointed out that "the result of a midterm doesn't have a lot to say about what happens in the presidential election." Both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan suffered losses in their first midterm elections but easily won reelection, while George H.W. Bush did reasonably well in the 1990 midterm, only to lose his reelection bid.
Still, the midterms will shape Bush's reelection strategy. A return to GOP control in the Senate could be a financial bonanza for the party, as Democratic challengers to Bush in 2004 would see their visibility and fundraising ability diminish.
On the other hand, Republican control of Congress would create new problems for Bush's reelection bid. Conservatives in his party would become increasingly emboldened and could pass legislation on controversial topics such as abortion, presenting Bush with the choice of alienating his party faithful or independent voters. And Bush would lose the ability to blame Democrats when things go wrong.
Bush's 2004 prospects will also be shaped by what happens in the large number of competitive gubernatorial races Tuesday. The nation could have as many as 25 new governors after Tuesday. Republicans are in some danger of losing control of Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- crucial battleground states in presidential elections -- and have lost hope for a strong showing in California, which Bush aides had considered the only way to make the president competitive in that state in two years.
"It always is a comfort to have a Republican governor at the head of a state party to make sure it's firing on all eight cylinders," said former Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond.
Bush also has a particularly personal stake in a number of races. If Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, were to lose his reelection bid as governor of Florida, or if Democrats were to win the Senate or gubernatorial races in Bush's home state of Texas, the opposition would call it a rebuke of the president. Similarly, if Tuesday brings bad news for Bush's hand-picked Senate candidates, such Norm Coleman in Minnesota, John Thune in South Dakota and C. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, political insiders would likely regard that as an embarrassment for the president.
Republicans say that Bush's recruitment of various Senate candidates is too esoteric a matter to be noticed by most voters. Republican defeats in Texas or Florida could be much more dangerous, they say, but are unlikely. "If there were a surprising loss in one of those two states, it would be something you'd have to deal with," Dowd said.