Reagan keeps tight grip on agenda for the 1982 elections
Washington — The name of the dominant figure in this fall's elections won't appear on the ballot for any of the 468 national office seats contested.
And the political tacticians most responsible for setting the issues and pace of the 1982 races haven't a candidate in the field.
The dominant figure, of course, is President Reagan, in his political role as leader of the Republican Party. And the main architects of the 1982 campaign - as the opposing Democrats readily admit - are Mr. Reagan's White House advisers.
The last big cluster of US primary elections are held this week in 14 states, with runoffs remaining in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Florida.
While incumbent presidents always influence elections, if only as a major reference point for debate, Reagan and his team have been unusually effective in controlling the political agenda, White House experts say. The fact that Congress overrode the President's veto of a supplemental appropriations bill last week takes away little from this impression, they add.
Further, the ''corporate'' style of Reagan's Washington camp - with the White House in charge of the national Republican political machinery as well as the executive branch - appears able to give broad policy direction to the GOP's House and Senate campaigns without smothering them with overdirection, or siphoning off congressional campaign resources to support the presidency.
Administration insiders now say there may be less of a breakup of the Reagan White House team after the election than generally reported. It now appears there will be nothing like ''a shake-up,'' they say. This is partly due to the shrinking estimates for Republican losses in this November's elections, and stability in the President's public standing despite disappointing economic results.
Even if the GOP suffers big losses in November, two factors will weigh against major White House personnel shifts: the fewness of candidates, and Reagan's reluctance to tamper with his ranks.
The President's approval rating appears stable. Good news, coming in the form of August's bull stock market, the end of the fighting in Lebanon, and the introduction of Reagan's new Middle East plan, has helped offset the bad news of recession and unemployment.
If Reagan's job rating stays at its August low of 41 percent as recorded by Gallup, the Republicans stand to lose only 15 seats in the House - the average for first-term losses for a president's party in recent years. And if past patterns hold true in 1982, the Republicans will hold their own in the Senate. This result would neither be an endorsement of Reagan policies nor a repudiation of the Republican President.
The approval ratings and midterm elections are closely linked barometers of how the country thinks things are going. Richard Brode, Stanford University political scientist, observes that the falloff in a president's approval ratings from inauguration to election time has indicated the number of seats lost in almost every race since 1946. The exception was in 1958, when the highly popular Dwight Eisenhower led his party through a devastating 47-seat loss in the House.
The Reagan political team continues to impress Washington.
''I've never seen so top-notch a group at dictating the national agenda,'' says one Democratic Party official. ''It's not just getting the top news spot on evening TV, but in their framing the long-range agenda. I can't tell you how much respect I have for those guys in the White House - Judge (William) Clark, (Edwin) Meese, (Michael) Deaver, (James) Baker.''
Reagan himself has been skillfully deployed by his handlers. ''It's hard putting up our people against them,'' the Democrat says. ''They make it Ronald Reagan against Tip O'Neill. Their strategy has been classic political theater: A president wages war with Congress.''
''Reagan's people have skillfully turned public attention from the economy to winning and losing in Congress,'' says Stephen Wayne, George Washington University presidential expert. ''It's almost become a sport. That serves a couple of purposes. It turns the focus from the results to the battle. It makes Reagan appear as an effective and forceful leader regardless of opinion of his policies. And it gains him respect in Washington - where reporters take their cues from Congress.
''Congress still has respect for Reagan personally. They were criticizing Carter in six months. That has a whole lot of benefits for this administration down the road, after the election.''
Administration officials admit relief at the Reagan team's success so far in political ball control, despite the loss on the veto override last weekend.
Said one official of the veto override loss in the House last week, ''The world outside Washington doesn't know about a veto override. The White House kept the Soviet pipeline, unemployment, and Labor Day off the front page. Reagan benefits from the swing against (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin in American public opinion. Going into the election, this means there won't be the bloodbath for Republicans everyone was expecting.''
Some adjustments in the Reagan Cabinet and White House operations are expected after the November elections, but at lower levels than earlier anticipated.
The four top Cabinet jobs - defense, state, treasury, and attorney general - appear securely held by those who hold them. Lower Cabinet posts like labor, housing, and education will likely see changes. But the betting now is for a low-level, normal midterm shift in the Reagan team.