THE 1986 elections will be read most closely in terms of the man who is not running -- Ronald Reagan. The President is campaigning -- one day a week on the road for some weeks now, then two days toward the end. The election is not a referendum on the Reagan presidency. But Ronald Reagan has certainly helped determine the climate of this fall's contests. In close races, especially when the turnout is expected to be low, a presidential appearance on behalf of a candidate can help rev up the spirits of the party faithful and deliver a winning margin.
The White House has made some big political investments to help hold a Republican majority in the Senate. With crucial farm state elections in sight, it has boosted agriculture subsidies to record levels and offered grain-sale subsidies to the Soviet Union -- actions inconsistent with the President's views on free-market economics and superpower concessions.
But the President's partisan hands are largely tied in 1986. His major legislative success, tax reform, would not have been possible without substantial Democratic cooperation. Its passage, however, takes away the President's ability to tag Democrats with obstruction.
The fact is, the President has not had many new legislative successes to boast of. His veto of Congress's South Africa sanctions measures and his threatened veto of spending legislation indicate he is falling back on confrontation with Congress to assert executive authority.
Given the pattern of huge continuing deficits, Democrats may take at least some partisan pleasure in taunting the ``borrow and spend'' Republicans. But the Republican Party, which told voters, ``Vote Republican for a change,'' in 1980, ``Stay the Course,'' in 1982, and ``It's morning again in America,'' in 1984, has adopted no national theme in 1986.
With five weeks before the election, there does not appear to be an overall binding set of issues or themes in 1986. Economic conditions continue to improve, albeit unevenly and amid some voter unease about the future. This keys the public's political mood.
It is an election in which the reputations of presidential contenders can be made -- a Bob Graham in Florida, a Mario Cuomo in New York -- for 1988. Still, the public is more disengaged than usual in this election, in part possibly because of confusion over whether anybody has any solutions.
It could be, the morning after the election, if the close races split sharply in one direction -- as they did in the 1980 Senate contests against the Democrats -- that some as yet undiscerned overriding pattern can be discerned. None is apparent now.
If the six-seat GOP margin in the Senate is narrowed to one or two seats, it will mean the current bipartisan bargaining and consensus-building, such as it is, will become even more crucial. The same will be true if the Democrats add, say, 15 or 20 seats to their margin in the House. The coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, long a staple of American politics, would give the President leverage on the Hill even if the Democrats won a Senate majority.
Drift and delay, not leadership, most mark Washington's handling of issues like immigration reform and the deficit. Congress does not agree with the President on arms control, defense spending, Nicaragua, apartheid; on these subjects it is nearer the country's mood than is the administration.
Given the domestic standoff, in his final two years President Reagan most likely must look to foreign affairs -- particularly an arms pact with Moscow, possibly begun with a Gorbachev summit visit to the United States, then capped with a Reagan visit to the Soviet Union -- to round out his presidency.