Scott McClellan walked into the White House briefing room Tuesday with the solemn expression of a man about to deliver some very important presidential news. And, indeed, he had an update on a crisis the president of the United States was monitoring: the miners trapped in Upshur County, West Virginia. "The president continues to be kept informed about the situation," McClellan reported. "He was briefed this morning." McClellan made clear that all of the Bush administration's resources were being mobilized. "The Mine Safety and Health Administration has rescue and safety specialists who are onsite working with the rescue teams," he said. An "emergency operations mobile command center" had been dispatched to Sago, West Virginia. The feds were carefully monitoring gas samples in the mine. "There is," the president's spokesman said reassuringly, "a robot that they have onsite that has been helping with the rescue efforts." (Though the AP later reported that "the robot was abandoned for human searchers after it became bogged down in mud.")
When President Bush made his first public appearance of the day, he echoed the urgency of his press secretary, opening his remarks by noting that he had just talked to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin and assured him of federal help. "And may God bless those who are trapped below the earth, and may God bless those who are concerned about those trapped below the earth," he said, with a look of grave concern.
The death of the West Virginia miners is an awful tragedy. But there was a time when the Bush White House would have been embarrassed to thrust the president into the middle of cable news' human drama of the week. Early on in the Bush administration, aides scoffed at such Clintonian gestures and bragged that Bush would not shrink his presidency with a parade of comforter-in-chief moments. But times have changed. Bush's all-day effort to help rescue the miners is a preview of the White House's plans for the new year. Bush 2005, the bold leader who—flush from electoral victory—eschewed polls and relished taking on impossible legislative tasks, has given way to Bush 2006, an emasculated president who has given up transformative reforms to Social Security and the tax code and is hungry for every approval-rating point. On Tuesday, the White House press secretary even crowed that he knows the American people support one Bush program because "there actually was a poll last week that showed more than 60 percent of the American people support" it.
BUSH'S NEW POST-KATRINA eagerness to entangle himself in small dramas like the mine rescue and his abandonment of a big agenda spell the end of a popular argument about the president. Call it the great-man theory of Bush. As his job approval ratings dropped in 2005, White House aides peddled the idea that, rather than being a caretaker president, Bush is a revolutionary leader who suffers low ratings only because he is unafraid to fight for radical ideas like private Social Security accounts or sweeping tax changes. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes went so far as to turn the popularity-is-for-wusses theory—which quickly caught on with the conservative faithful—into a book, Rebel-in-Chief, to be published this month. A Bush aide once summarized for Barnes the distinction between Bush and his time-wasting predecessors thusly: "The difference is between polls in the 40s and changing history and being in the 60s and twiddling your thumbs. We'll take the 40s. That's our motto." Or at least that was their motto.
The evidence that Bush will dramatically trim his policy sails this year has dribbled out from the White House in leaks and on-the-record comments over the last few weeks. There will be no effort to revive Bush's Social Security plan—unsurprising, since most Republicans refused to embrace it, even in a nonelection year. But the White House is also abandoning the other pillar of Bush's second-term domestic agenda: a comprehensive reform of the tax code. Republicans close to the White House hint that the most ambitious tax change Bush will pursue is a tweaking of the Alternative Minimum Tax. Stripped of these two big ideas, Bush's 2006 is looking decidedly small-bore. Domestically, the only major issue the White House hints it will pursue is Bush's long- languishing immigration plan, specifically his guest-worker proposal, which would temporarily legalize illegal aliens working in the United States and was rejected by the House last month. The White House says Bush will also spend another year trying to make permanent tax cuts he has already passed. He will pursue some minor energy legislation, including tax breaks for hybrids and alternative energy, ideas his vice president once dismissed as useless. In March, he will reportedly hold a summit at the White House to discuss a pre-September 11 crowd-pleaser, faith-based programs—as sure a sign as any that the administration think tank is empty. So much for the rebel-in-chief. Now Bush just wants to be liked.
To be sure, conservatives might argue that the great-man theory of Bush is still alive when it comes to the president's foreign policy. But, even in Iraq, the latest signals from the White House are that Bush is looking for the earliest opportunity to declare victory and leave. Bush has been forced to add chastened rhetoric to his Iraq speeches. McClellan uncharacteristically noted this week that some troops are on their way home, and The Washington Post reported that Bush will not seek new funds for Iraq reconstruction in his budget next month. If true—and the White House declined to deny or correct the report—it is stunning and underappreciated news. It makes a joke of Bush's previous comparisons of his commitment to Iraq to the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany and Japan, not to mention his year-old goal of "ending tyranny in our world."
So what's driving the new domestic-lite version of Bush? The midterm elections, of course. According to National Journal, the White House has been meeting for weeks with dozens of congressmen to devise an election-year agenda that will minimize GOP losses, especially in the inner suburbs, where the GOP ceded ground last year and where several House seats are vulnerable this year. "The president is here to help reelect Republicans," Candida Wolff, Bush's congressional lobbyist, told National Journal. "That's why we are meeting with members, to think through an agenda." The Republican National Committee has reportedly instructed its 231 congressmen up for reelection to ditch the sweeping rhetoric and big ideas that conservatives insist define the Bush era and instead act like "federal mayors." In fact, according to Barnes, suburban Republicans have drawn up a list of 20 poll-tested issues that would make Dick Morris blush, including mandatory Internet filters and background checks for teachers.
The GOP's embrace of little ideas and the president's abandonment of big ones is actually liberating for Bush. By unburdening himself of his difficult and unpopular domestic proposals, he can stick to his one election-year strength—attacking Democrats as weak on national security. Instead of using Democratic opposition to the Department of Homeland Security, as the GOP did in 2002, the White House and Republicans will scorch Democrats for their opposition to the National Security Agency's domestic spying program and their insistence on modifying the Patriot Act. The campaign is already underway. In between Bush's and McClellan's prayers for miners on Tuesday, the White House issued its first furious volley. McClellan refused to even acknowledge that there is a substantive, bipartisan debate in the Senate over how parts of the Patriot Act should work. He asserted that Democrats "want to undermine and weaken the Patriot Act" and that they are "putting politics above our nation's security." McClellan went so far as to suggest that even to debate such matters is now close to treasonous. "When our intelligence activities are talked about openly and publicly, particularly in a time of war, it is harmful to our nation's security," he said. "You don't see Al Qaeda talking about their tactics and activities in public."
McClellan is a pleasant but dimwitted fellow. It is doubtful he realizes that he put the White House on record as equating the way the United States hashes out questions of civil liberties and national security with the way Al Qaeda does. This kind of slash-and-burn rhetoric doesn't do much to further the kind of bold change that Bush and conservatives claim to be pursuing, but it has kept Republicans in power since September 11. That's why the great-man theory of Bush was so short-lived. Maybe you can change history with polls in the 40s, but you can't win elections.
Ryan Lizza is The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent. He was a senior editor and political correspondent for The New Republic from 1998 to 2007. This article originally ran in the January 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.