President Bush intends to do a lot of campaigning in this election year because he knows the rest of his agenda is dead in the water if the Democrats regain control of Congress in November.
And the Democrats are uncomfortably close to doing just that. They need only six more seats to regain the House (eight if Democratic Reps. James Traficant of Ohio and Ralph Hall of Texas vote, as they have warned, to keep the GOP in charge).
Republicans still have the edge in redistricting gains, giving them perhaps four to five more seats. But many more Republicans are retiring this year than Democrats. At last count, there were 16 open seats the GOP had to defend vs. only seven open Democratic seats.
In the Senate, where Democrats barely cling to power by a one-vote margin, just a one- to two-seat gain would consolidate their hold on an evenly divided chamber that became the burial ground for much of the president’s agenda last year.
White House strategists have been deeply involved in Senate candidate recruitment and they have put together a formidable lineup. But Republicans have a lot to prove this year, after the Democrats clobbered them in 2000, defeating five of the GOP’s incumbents. Republican campaign officials admit the battle for the Senate is so close that the outcome “could go either way.”
Moreover, the Democrats taught the Republicans a painful lesson in last year’s governorship victories in New Jersey and Virginia. They showed they could defuse the tax-cut issue, which has been pivotal to the GOP’s success.
Still, the president heads into this year’s campaigns with some huge advantages. With his public approval polls at nearly 90 percent, he is in a far stronger position to define and drive the issues for the country on the war, terrorism and cutting taxes further and faster to restore economic growth.
He has the presidential bully pulpit and, for now at least, immense popularity to turn it into a major political offensive. Warning Democratic leaders that they are going to have to raise taxes “over my dead body” is just a taste of the tougher, wedge-setting campaign rhetoric to come as the campaign heats up.
Republican lawmakers also begin the midterm elections cycle with much better polling numbers, after a productive legislative year that included across-the-board tax cuts, education reforms, more money for defense and the first step in the development and deployment of an anti-missile system.
The latest congressional preference polls show House Republicans edging out the Democrats by 46 percent to 44 percent, with 10 percent undecided. That’s up substantially from June when voters favored Democrats by 50 percent to 43 percent.
But can Mr. Bush transfer his popularity to his party? Popular presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan were unable to do so to any great degree. And, in the end, they did not campaign as much as their party hoped they would to boost the GOP’s numbers in Congress.
Mr. Bush’s increased popularity comes mostly from Democrats and independents who have rallied around him in the battle against terrorism. Is he willing to spend his political capital on partisan campaigning, which will likely erode his standing in the polls? White House advisers say that he is because his agenda is tied intimately to what happens in November.
A successful presidency is judged by many things, but largely by the ability to make America a better place.
That means getting his legislative priorities enacted, and Mr. Bush still has a long list of things that need doing: stronger homeland security proposals to thwart future terrorist attacks; more funding for a stepped up war effort abroad; tax incentives to accelerate faster economic growth and job creation; fiscal restraint elsewhere in the government to keep the deficits to a minimum; trade negotiating authority to expand U.S. exports; and an energy independence bill.
Mr. Bush’s recent campaign trip to Oregon, where he road-tested his “my dead body” remark, was a practice run for the combative campaigning we can expect in the upcoming months. He is not going to mince words on the issues that matter most to him. And he is going to make tax cuts one of the defining issues in this year’s campaign.
“It’s not enough for us to say I don’t want to raise your taxes. That isn’t sufficient for our base. That’s why we lost the Virginia governor’s race. You have to say I want to cut your taxes, and that is what Bush is doing,” said tax cut crusader Grover Norquist, one of Bush’s political advisers.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is working on his State of the Union address, a separate speech on the economy calling for a new stimulus bill, and his 2003 budget plan, documents that are going to not only lay out his agenda for the year but his campaign strategy as well.