Inside Bush's Strategy, Win or Lose

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U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands at a campaign rally for Republican candidates in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Reporters keep asking White House Press Secretary Tony Snow about President George W. Bush's "contingency plans" if Democrats were to win the House and/or Senate in today's midterm elections. Snow has been patiently explaining for weeks that no such formal plans are being made, since the President expects Republicans to defy the pundits and win both. Another top aide said, "If you think Karl [Rove] is spending any time thinking about losing, you're crazy."

However, the President and his aides have begun signaling a legislative strategy that they can pursue, win or lose: challenge Congress to go after big goals, including debating an overhaul of Social Security and the other two big entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Bush has spoken increasingly frankly about his plans to run up the hill on Social Security again, and sources say Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson will use his Wall Street cachet to promote discussion of an issue that had Republicans dashing for the exits last year.

As Air Force One flew to Pensacola, Fla., on Monday for one of the President's final rallies, Snow gave a preview of the language you can expect to hear him using on television as he talks about the coming legislative season, beginning with the breakfast shows on Wednesday. "There's the thing that you do need to know," he said, "which is that the President plans for a very active final two years of his presidency. And there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed that everybody knows need to be addressed. One is winning the war on terror. The second is continuing to build economic strength. You have No Child Left Behind, you have an interest in creating better educational opportunities; you've got energy, which is a shared interest. So the President is going to be very aggressive, and he's not going to play small ball."

Snow told Rush Limbaugh on Monday that Republicans have "got a lot of I-told-you-so moments right now because polls are tightening." But if voters wind up choosing divided government today, a big wave of news coverage will focus on whether the President can become a uniter, working with Democrats as he did when he was Texas governor. Snow caused a stir online and in the White House press corps last month when he told that one of the administration's goals for the next two years—the final quarter of Bush's presidency—is "maybe to de-toxify American politics a little bit."

TIME asked Snow what he meant by that, and his answer served as a preview of points he can be expected to make frequently in the days ahead. "What've you've had is a very toxic atmosphere," he said. "Democrats have decided, and Nancy Pelosi has said as much, that the strategy is to tear down the President. While that may be effective as a political strategy, and I have questions about that, it's not good for the country and people are bored with it. When you have a war on terror that's not going to go away; when you have an economy that needs constant care and attention; when you've got an entitlement crunch that is not going to go away; when you have challenges on the energy and education fronts; when you have immigration, where we have started to deal with a comprehensive solution but have much further to go; you want people to stop calling each other names and do the people's business. It is not only possible but it is desirable that people on both sides of the political divide be able to call each other friends and to be able to disagree amicably without waging World War III. We expect that of our kids. We ought to expect it of our lawmakers. The President has always tried to extend a hand to people on both sides of the aisle and he'll continue to do it."

The President's public schedule for Wednesday is blank so far, but he has a Cabinet meeting scheduled for Thursday. When he meets the cameras, his message is likely to include similar points. He'll be a uniter, his aides say, if Democrats will reciprocate.

The question is whether they have an incentive to do so. The answer to that will be able to be read in tonight's results.