“Stay the course” is a time-honored rallying cry in politics. But it has always been more a slogan than a strategy, meant to show the steadfastness of the person who shouts it rather than what he actually intends to do. More telling is when staying the course turns into “constantly changing tactics to meet the situation on the ground.” That is how President Bush is now describing the battle plan in Iraq. It also pretty neatly sums up what his presidency has come to as he reaches the eve of a midterm congressional election that has turned into a referendum on Bush himself—and on a policy in Iraq that has left him more isolated than at any other point in his presidency.
The last time control of Congress was up for grabs in a midterm election, it seemed Republican candidates across the country couldn’t see enough of—or be seen enough with—George W. Bush. In the closing five days of 2002, Bush swooped through 17 cities, playing to tens of thousands of voters who packed tarmacs and arenas from Aberdeen, S.D., to Blountville, Tenn. This midterm election is also turning out to be all about Bush, but it’s a much lonelier experience for him. He still fills smaller rooms, especially the kind where people are willing to write five-figure checks for the privilege of lunch with a Republican President. And he’s welcomed warmly in places where having local reporters point out Bush’s difficulties provides a diversion from the candidate’s own. But when Air Force One touches down in tightly contested congressional districts these days, it often turns out that the G.O.P. candidate there has discovered a previous commitment elsewhere, the political equivalent of suddenly needing to have your tires rotated.