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THE PRESIDENCY

Transition: Less Seems to be More

It's been a good month for Bush.

February 25, 2001|Stephen Hess | Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been involved in presidential transitions since the 1960-61 Eisenhower-Kennedy transition and has written a series on them for the Presidential Appointee Initiative, a Brookings project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts

WASHINGTON — The contested election of 2000 provides an excellent example of what can be gained or lost by cutting the traditional 10- to 11-week transition period in half. President George W. Bush's transition has been remarkably smooth, compared with those of Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. But the transition's apparent success belies the increasing difficulties in getting a new administration "up and running."

Like previous presidents, Bush made his first Cabinet appointments in an area of symbolic significance to him: national defense. In short succession, he announced the selection of Colin L. Powell as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as national-security advisor and Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense. The White House staff, too, was selected quickly, drawn from a circle of friends and advisors. Of the triad that ran the campaign, Karen Hughes was chosen as the president's counselor, Karl Rove was picked to run political and intergovernmental affairs and the office of public liaison and Joe Allbaugh was selected to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ari Fleischer was named press secretary. Finally, the election's closeness and contentiousness necessitated that Bush seek a Democrat for his Cabinet. He would have liked Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana for Energy secretary, but Breaux wanted to remain in the Senate. So Bush appointed Clinton's Commerce secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, as secretary of Transportation.

When Bush finished his Cabinet selections, it was clear that his three staunchest conservative nominees--John Ashcroft (Justice), Gale A. Norton (Interior) and Linda Chavez (Labor)--would be regarded unfavorably by many Senate Democrats, who now hold half those seats. While confirmation hearings are conducted by different committees, the Senate considers an administration's initial slate of appointments almost holistically. Perhaps there is a point beyond which opposition is perceived as politically unproductive. Bush understood this when he answered a reporter's question about the Ashcroft nomination: "Well, I expected at least one member of my Cabinet to get a pretty tough hearing. You know, it could've been John, it could've been somebody else."

Chavez, a foe of affirmative action, could expect a pretty tough hearing, too. Still, the history of confirmations is that ideological opposition is not sufficient to defeat a person who serves the president. It takes a skeleton in the closet. Chavez's skeleton was that she had taken an illegal immigrant from Guatemala into her home, and the woman had performed occasional chores and been given $1,500 in spending money over two years. Was this Zoe Baird redux? Chavez admitted to "bad judgment" by not informing Bush vetters or the FBI and withdrew her name. Senate Democrats were delighted, yet it was at little cost to Bush. Two days later, Bush announced a replacement and was given credit for acting expeditiously.

Senators would find no skeleton in the closet of Ashcroft. His conservative views on certain issues were deeply controversial, as was his blocking the nomination of a black Missouri judge's elevation to the federal bench. Two weeks of debate in the Judiciary Committee produced a commitment from Ashcroft to policies he had opposed as senator. This included a statement that "as attorney general I don't think it could be my agenda" to overturn Roe vs. Wade. His nomination was approved in committee, then in the full Senate with a 58-42 vote. It was a big victory for Bush--but also for Democrats who demonstrated that they could sustain a filibuster if Bush proposed a U.S. Supreme Court nominee beyond their tolerance level. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointedly reminded the president: "I think what has happened with the Ashcroft nomination in terms of divisiveness would look small compared with the divisiveness that would occur if someone of [former] Sen. Ashcroft's beliefs were nominated to the United States Supreme Court."

The Bush Cabinet ultimately included two African Americans, a Japanese American, a Cuban American, a Chinese American and an Arab American. There are four women in the Cabinet, and the national-security advisor is a black woman. Favorable comparisons were made to Clinton's tortured 1992 efforts to create a cabinet that "looks like America."

Announcing his appointments, Bush repeatedly noted the "wonderful stories" they embodied. Mel Martinez, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, left Cuba at 15 and lived with two foster families until reunited with his parents. Powell is the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao came from China at age 8. Mineta was in an internment camp during World War II.

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