Summer arrived at the White House this week, featuring the longest day of the year and hopes for better weather ahead. The sunny months come none too soon after what must have seemed an endless spring of unrelenting clouds for the Bush administration.
Here's how the spring season was supposed to go for the president, had fate followed the script envisioned by his aides both in the White House and at Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign headquarters in suburban Arlington, Va.
1) An initial bombardment of campaign ads that cost more than $80 million would fix Sen. John Kerry in the public mind as a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal with no core principles. Unprecedented in its timing, breadth and cost, this campaign would inflict serious and perhaps fatal damage on the Democratic presidential hopeful.
2) A series of solid economic reports would show job growth across the board and even in manufacturing, erasing doubts about Mr. Bush's performance in that critical category and snatching away a potential line of attack for Democrats this election season.
3) Iraq would finally start to settle down. Attitudes toward the overwhelmingly American occupying force would improve with the naming of an interim Iraqi government and the official transfer of sovereignty.
4) Ralph Nader would find himself with sudden access to key state ballots thanks to his endorsement by the Reform Party (the outfit inspired in the 1990s by billionaire gadfly Ross Perot). This would promise to divert at least some anti-Bush votes away from Kerry, smoothing the president's path in some of the most fiercely contested battleground states. This would provide a kind of insurance policy against early retirement at the ranch in Crawford, Texas.
But things didn't go quite the way they were planned. That's something any White House comes to expect. But the Bush team hardly could have anticipated the past several months would see so many reversals.
In the end, the president's TV spots were everywhere, especially in those so-called battleground states like Ohio and Florida and Michigan and Pennsylvania and Arizona. But night after night, the carefully crafted advertising images were overwhelmed by the actual news:
—Abu Ghraib prison and all of those pictures
—Assassinations of Iraqi officials
—More American casualties
—The gruesome murders of American civilians Nicholas Berg and Paul Johnson
—The resignation of embattled CIA director George Tenet
—A presidential visit to the Pope at the Vatican, where John-Paul II admonished the president over Iraq and the prison abuse scandal
When the media were not full of these negatives, they were distracted by other stories beyond the president's control. Ronald Reagan's death and memorials shouldered all else aside for a full week, including President Bush's hosting of world leaders in Georgia and his D-Day speech at Normandy on the 60th anniversary of the allied invasion.
Then came the climactic final sessions of the bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission (with it's staff report of "no collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda), and finally the hoopla surrounding the release of Bill Clinton's autobiography, which will shift the center of the political dialog for weeks to come. (Perhaps Mr. Bush can count his blessings that at least Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have kept a low profile of late.)
It's true that government economic reports followed the script the president had hoped, with job growth and some good days in the markets. But even that news had a hard time breaking through because of Iraq and high gasoline prices topping $2 per gallon. There also continue to be high-profile job cuts in manufacturing, including the announced closing of an Ohio automotive supply plant where the president himself had given a speech touting his tax cuts in 2003.
So yes, the warmer weather has come to Washington, but not all the heat is on Kerry as the Bush campaign had planned. The polls show Kerry and the president neck and neck. No knockout blow has been delivered. And nowadays you hear the president's people taking some solace in saying Kerry's negatives are up, and that after a very rough couple of months the president has not fallen behind Kerry. That means the incumbent is still in good position to win what his top advisers have always said would be a very close race.
That's a reasonable point, and even a compelling one. But it's a far cry from the cruise-control mode many in the GOP once hoped to be entering right about now. Stressing the president's resilience makes sense, and toughness can be a major executive virtue. It's just not the one this White House had expected to showcase in late June of this re-election year.