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New Wrinkle in Cabinet Selections

Politics: To help contain fallout from election, elder statesmen of both parties are suggesting the next president should pick nominees from a bipartisan pool of moderates.


WASHINGTON — It may be days, even weeks, before the presidential election standoff is resolved, but the political cliffhanger already is changing the calculus of likely presidential appointments and legislative agendas.

No matter which candidate emerges from the morass in Florida to become the next chief executive, political advisors and scholars say that his legitimacy has been seriously undermined by the split decision of the country's voters.

Once the victor is declared, these experts say, it will be incumbent on either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush to take steps to repair the damage caused by the rancor of recent days and bridge the political divide, particularly in the new Congress.

The excruciating closeness of the election--and the possibility that confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees could be riven by recriminations--are expected to alter the political and legislative strategies of the new administration.

Elder statesmen of both parties already are suggesting that the next president should make his Cabinet choices not from the ranks of ideologues but from the pool of political moderates.

Similarly, they say, the new administration should shelve the more divisive items on the Bush and Gore agendas in favor of an initial legislative program that seeks to unite, not divide.

"Now that we know that the Congress will be controlled by Republicans, but we know the majority is just razor-thin, it's all the more important to make sure that the appointees--be it Mr. Gore's or Mr. Bush's--are respected on both sides of the aisle," said Pendleton James, who directed transition efforts for Ronald Reagan and who has been advising the Bush campaign for months.

If Texas Gov. Bush emerges the victor, that could mean dropping the most conservative of his intended nominees and appointing either moderate Republicans--or even Democrats--to several key positions.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and defense hawk, has been mentioned for months as a possible Bush choice as secretary of Defense. Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who headed a bipartisan commission on Medicare reform, has been mentioned as a potential Bush Cabinet contender.

Historians and other academics who study transitions have urged Clay Johnson, who has been quietly managing transition planning for Bush, and Roy Neel, who has been doing the same for Vice President Gore, to consider such a bipartisan approach.

"It has been clear for months that the president-elect would be very smart to pick people from the other side for prominent Cabinet positions, given the likely closeness of the outcome," said Norman Ornstein, who heads the transition research project of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Now it goes beyond smart to being almost necessary."

Idea of Coalition Cabinet Downplayed

On Friday, however, several prominent Republicans who have been advising the Bush campaign played down the possibility that Bush would bring significant numbers of Democrats into his inner circle. While it is not inconceivable that Bush would appoint a Democrat or two to key positions, they said they considered it unlikely.

"I think that the Bush team is inclined to govern from strength, regardless of the result of the election. They view the authority of whoever is inaugurated president as complete and not subject to compromise," said Chase Untermeyer, a close friend of the Bush family's and a transition advisor to former President Bush and the Texas governor.

"That's not to say that they wouldn't be inclined to reach compromises on the legislative agenda or budget or political tone of Washington," Untermeyer said. "But I would be very surprised to see, in effect, a coalition government, because under our system we don't have such things."

Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was Reagan's last chief of staff, expressed similar skepticism about bipartisan appointments.

"If a Republican picked a Democrat, unless the Democrat signed on hook, line and sinker with everything on the president's agenda, you'd have a problem there," Duberstein said. "In America we build coalitions but we build them with Congress. We do not build them within an administration."

Top campaign aides to Gore have said that they previously discussed the possibility of including one or more Republicans in the new Cabinet if Gore did not win the popular and electoral college vote. But since the election, the Gore team has not commented about transition issues.

No matter how the election drama plays out, the new president will face unprecedented challenges. The legal wrangling over the election returns could create the impression that he won on a technicality. And if Bush occupies the White House, he will do so with the knowledge that Gore won the popular vote.

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