Bush has been sitting down all week with every imaginable major news outlet on an exclusive-interview blitz, hoping to up his presidential profile as his "First 100 Days" draws to a close Sunday. (Karl Rove thinks it should be 180 days, an extension which would incidentally help Bush notch a few more legislative achievements, but nobody bit.)
He's made a few diplo-speak gaffes on foreign policy, including the one about doing "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from China, but on the domestic front, where language (especially his) is parsed less finely, the president was pretty clear: He now realizes that "working with Congress" really does mean making a deal.
On the tax cut, this was as simple as admitting his wings had already been clipped. "It's going to be less than 1.6 and greater than 1.2, and we've got to figure out how to make it work" Bush, leaving off the trillions, told the Associated Press.
On the overall budget, Bush through Dick Cheney had unsheathed his veto pen when it came to any increases in discretionary spending beyond 4 percent. Now (and this is the sort of newfound flexibility that goes with a shrinking tax cut) Bush told CNN that he's "keeping all options open."
For a man with a 49 percent mandate and a split-down-the-middle Senate, these are not shocking admissions. Bush's big-tax-relief, small-government campaign platform was of, for, and by the Republican base that wrote Bush the checks to get him elected, and all campaign promises get put through the Congressional meat-grinder sooner or later. The surprise may be that it's taken this long for Bush to admit the obvious.
But you can't blame him for trying. Although Bush entered office with a lot of humble talk about reaching across party lines and building bipartisan compromises on legislation, in practice he's mostly hewed to the role of high bidder, setting out exactly what he wants usually, what he promised pre-November and twisting every arm he can find until he gets it.
Except it's not working. All the home-state visits from Bush and back-room offers from Dick Cheney couldn't keep Republican moderates like Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee to the party line on that $1.6 trillion tax cut, and in the end centrist Democrats like John Breaux felt little need to consider crossing over to the White House's way of thinking. The centrists called the compromise, and Tom Daschle, merely by slicing off 25 percent, was able to claim a victory.
Now the Senate will get back to work next week, and the primary order of business is finalizing that tax cut and the budget that goes around it. Bush knows by now that in days 100-200, he's not going to get exactly what he wanted so why not start saying now that that's OK with him?
Tuesday, Bush told the Washington Post his "stated mission of changing the tone of Washington is beginning to pay off," and he may be right. It may even be paying off with him.