The little referee
If George W. Bush thinks getting elected was hard, just wait until he has
to resolve clashes between his powerful advisers
by Seth Gitell
Wait until George W. Bush tries to unite a divided party, Congress, and nation.
It'll make getting elected look easy.
Condoleeza Rice (top) and Colin Powell(bottom)have already been nominated.
Sure, the president-elect is putting a bang-up team in place to help him. He
persuaded Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to sign on as
secretary of state -- something President Bill Clinton couldn't do. He's got
Condoleezza Rice, a protégée of Brent Scowcroft (and another
African-American), on board as his nominee for national security adviser. And
Vice-President Dick Cheney hovers above it all exuding confidence and
But selecting these people was the easy part. As Bush enters his second week as
president-elect, he confronts a party divided over who should get key
administration positions. The neo-conservatives who live and breathe foreign
policy are irate that their favorite candidates -- former Reagan-administration
hawks Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz -- seem to have been tossed aside.
Social conservatives feel snubbed; when Bush addressed the Christian Coalition
during the campaign, he did so in a taped address. Moreover, Democrats, many of
whom consider Bush an illegitimate president, are hanging back and waiting to
strike. Expect to see some Borking in the Senate if Bush tries to push through
the nomination of someone like Marvin Olasky, the founder of compassionate
Ultimately, it will be up to Bush, and Bush alone, to deal with these
challenges. During the presidential campaign, after Bush's embarrassing failure
of the now-infamous WHDH pop quiz on world leaders, his team felt it important
to demonstrate that Bush would be qualified to handle complicated international
problems -- so his defenders repeatedly stressed the number of highly competent
advisers surrounding the candidate. But the transition phase shows the limits
of what advisers can do for anyone. The New York Times reported Monday
that Cheney and Powell were already clashing over who should be secretary of
defense. Both subsequently denied any such disagreement. (If you believe that,
well, there's a bridge in New York . . .) Republican partisans are lining up
behind either Cheney or Powell. What this means is that Bush the lightweight
will have to referee between two heavyweights. If Bush chooses wrong, he can
expect trouble. Unlike Reagan, a former movie actor turned politician who also
was initially perceived as a lightweight, Bush has yet to indicate what he
really believes about many serious issues. To date, we've heard nothing more
from him than poll-driven talking points.
"Everywhere George Bush turns there's a minefield he has to navigate that could
blow up in his face," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "The
Democrats could be the least of his problems."
Calm before the storm
Right now it's smooth sailing for Bush. Give him credit: without question, his
appointment of two powerful African-Americans to high office signals symbolic
progress for America. He also named former Bush-administration staffer and
secretary of transportation Andrew Card (a former state representative from
Holbrook) as his chief of staff. As a former General Motors employee and
auto-industry lobbyist, Card cuts a very corporate figure. But Card -- like
Powell and Rice -- has a reputation for professionalism that should serve the
Bush White House well.
But consider how Bush solved the first personnel conundrums of his
administration. Although everyone is enthusiastic about Card, he won't be at
the top of the West Wing, period. Bush has already named Karen Hughes, his
communications director during the campaign, as a presidential counselor -- and
he is likely to do the same for political strategist Karl Rove, on whom he also
relied heavily. The thinking is that each will be at the same level of
authority: each will report to Bush, and the president will sort it out if they
give conflicting advice. Such political battling defined the Reagan
administration and supplied conservative political columnist Robert Novak with
a decade's worth of columns. But that milieu also helped create the environment
that spawned Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and his Iran-contra scheme.
Contrary to appearances, Bush likes to be in control of things. He doesn't want
to worry about one strong adviser amassing power beneath him. (Just look at
what he did when national publications, including the usually cautious
Time magazine, started writing that Cheney -- not Bush -- would be the
real president. Bush arranged a photo op at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where
both Cheney and Powell were physically positioned to appear deferential to him.
Cheney, in particular, was posed to stand off to the side in a way that
indicated his subservience to Bush.) But this means that Bush himself
will have to sort out differences between those directly below him. The
stakes are much higher now than they ever were in Texas -- and he won't be able
to solve the problems with a photo op.
Already, Bush is struggling to manage the relationship between Cheney and
Powell, who were at odds during his father's presidency. Many of the same
people who favored Cheney for vice-president opposed the choice of Powell for
secretary of state. While many conservatives approve of Cheney's role during
the Gulf War, they look more skeptically on Powell's now-well-documented
caution. Back in July, Robert Kagan -- a senior associate at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace and an ally of William Kristol, founder of
the Weekly Standard -- wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington
Post expressing doubt that Powell would make a strong secretary of state.
Kagan focused on the former general's opposition to the Gulf War. More
recently, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby weighed in with a similar
critique of Powell; like Kagan, Jacoby focused on Powell's opposition to the
Gulf War and described him as "a classic consensus-seeker, a cautious insider
who rarely moves until he knows that everyone is on board."
Powell may have won the first battle by getting nominated, and he's all but
guaranteed to win the second, i.e., Senate confirmation. But he may not
win subsequent fights. Just two days after Powell was named as the nominee for
secretary of state, a serious conflict between him and Cheney leaked to the
press: it involved Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a Vietnam War hero with
strong defense credentials, whom Powell wanted as defense secretary.
As soon as Ridge's name emerged as a serious candidate to go to the Pentagon,
the conservative attack machine went into action. Syndicated columnist
Robert Novak launched the first volley at Ridge in his usual Sunday items
column on December 10. "While a member of Congress, Ridge opposed the Strategic
Defense Initiative and most other new weapons systems. He never was a member of
the House Armed Services Committee," Novak wrote. The Weekly Standard
and the National Review followed with anti-Ridge editorials. During the
weekend, Gary Bauer took the campaign against Ridge one step further by calling
him a "peacenik-type of congressman during the Reagan years," according to the
National Review online.
By Tuesday, Republicans were putting out the cover story that Ridge had taken
himself out of contention for the Defense Department weeks ago. That could be
the case, but it seems more like a face-saving gesture for Powell, his ally. In
either case, the Ridge affair bodes ill for Bush.
Whereas the moderate Ridge appeared to have won Powell's support, Cheney --
himself a former defense secretary -- backed Paul Wolfowitz, a
protégé of his from the first Bush presidency. A staunch
supporter of the missile-defense system dubbed Star Wars, Wolfowitz is the
candidate of both the right in general and the neo-conservatives in particular.
He is the only one in the Bush orbit whose nomination would convince Weekly
Standard founder Kristol -- and his National Greatness school of followers
-- that Bush will follow a "neo-Reaganite foreign policy."
By now, Richard Perle seems to have dropped out of the picture completely, and
the Bushies -- aside from Cheney -- are trying to get Wolfowitz to accept the
directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency or a secondary position at the
Department of Defense. The position of director of central intelligence
-- or DCI, as the post is called in Washington parlance -- is seen as a bit
of an exile. The White House visits of Clinton's DCI, R. James Woolsey, were so
infrequent that when a plane landed on the White House lawn in 1994, Washington
hands quipped that it was Woolsey trying to get a meeting with the president.
At least a subcabinet position at the Pentagon would give Wolfowitz a foothold.
Then, if Ridge or some other Defense Department head moved on, Wolfowitz might
move in. But this is a far cry from the claims of Bush supporters early in the
campaign that Perle and Wolfowitz were influential advisers and might get
important jobs in the administration.
As of this writing, it is unclear whom Bush will select for secretary of
defense. On December 19, however, the Washington Post reported that Bush
was leaning toward naming former Indiana senator Dan Coats. Coats himself,
however, has not escaped criticism. The Center for the Study of Sexual
Minorities in the Military is circulating the anti-gay-rights record that Coats
compiled in the Senate. Unlike Powell, who in his capacity as chairman of the
Joint Chiefs was forced to address the issue of gays in the military, Coats was
an active gay-rights opponent: he voted against a bill protecting gays and
lesbians from discrimination, and also against a hate-crimes-tracking bill. So
by solving one conflict -- that between foreign-policy hawks and doves --
Coats's selection would create another. Wolfowitz, incidentally, is known as a
former hard-nosed anti-Soviet hawk and a Cheney protégé who, like
his mentor, has no anti-gay baggage.
Even though picking Wolfowitz would seem like the rational choice under these
circumstances, some in the GOP are circulating an explanation as to why Bush
won't: given the fact that Cheney's health may not hold out, the Republicans
need to groom somebody to take his place. That person may be Ridge. Bush, who
clicks with Ridge, is desperate to credential the Pennsylvania governor so he
can step in for Cheney as vice-president in 2004 -- or before. Cheney has
suffered a number of heart attacks; the most recent took place right before
Thanksgiving. If he were to die in office, the 25th Amendment to the
Constitution would kick in -- just as it did after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973
-- and Bush would have to nominate a new vice-president, who would then require
confirmation by the House and Senate. But of course, picking Ridge would
alienate Cheney, both because the VP-elect backs Wolfowitz and because he can't
relish the thought of Bush planning for the event of his untimely demise.
More flack from the right -- and left
Quieter criticism is circulating regarding Rice's nomination as national
security adviser. Many in Washington's conservative foreign-policy circles
blame her and her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, for some of the failings of the
first Bush administration. For example, in 1991 Rice crafted President
Bush's notorious speech in the Ukraine that seemed to argue against the
break-up of the Soviet Union. (Foreign-policy eggheads now refer to that speech
as the "Chicken Kiev Address.") But for the president-elect, Rice's numerous
positives -- her expertise, her charisma, her background -- outweigh such
negatives. Where Rice won't have influence, however, is in trying to get her
own people into the administration. There is little chance, for example, that
Middle East specialist Richard Haass, a former colleague of Rice's on the
National Security Council, will take a prominent role in the administration.
Instead, Ed Djerian -- another Middle East expert who is well regarded by Rice
and former secretary of state James Baker -- is emerging as the new
But picking Djerian -- a former ambassador to Syria and a member of the classic
State Department school favoring close ties to Arab states -- as a special
Middle East coordinator could cause Bush some trouble in Congress, where some
representatives from the Christian religious right, such as Senator Sam
Brownback of Kansas and Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona, are staunchly
pro-Israel. Reverend Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition, meanwhile, is
pushing a pamphlet explaining "why Jerusalem must not be relinquished" and
would not welcome a high-profile role for Djerian. What will Bush do? Give
Djerian a prominent role? Or placate the evangelicals on the international side
by marginalizing people like Djerian and embracing efforts to fight Christian
persecution and slavery throughout the world?
Even if he chooses the latter course, such symbolism may not satisfy
conservatives clamoring for the influence they've lacked for years. Majority
Leader Richard Armey and Republican whip Tom DeLay -- both of Texas -- will try
to bully Bush into taking a more conservative stance domestically. They are
demanding a pro-life secretary of health and human services, a solid attorney
general -- "strong enough to fumigate the place" -- and a secretary of labor
"strong enough to tussle with the AFL-CIO," according to one influential
Washington conservative. Writes Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard:
"In some sectors of the GOP, there is a feeling that conservatives have
delivered for President-Elect George W. Bush, and now he must deliver for
Yet the more Bush lurches to the right to appease the conservatives, the more
he runs the risk of damaging Bork-like confirmation battles with the Democrats.
Any potential Bush foray into one of the Democratic strongholds -- for example,
an attempt to install a pro-life zealot at Health and Human Services or a
union-buster at the Department of Labor -- could spark a conflagration. But,
say Democrats, they'll have to choose their battles carefully.
A test for the Democrats will be a position such as secretary of education,
where Bush might want to place Tommy Thompson, the governor of Wisconsin, or
the Reverend Floyd Flake, a former New York Democratic congressman -- both of
whom advocate school vouchers. But the teachers' unions -- a core Democratic
constituency -- would go ballistic. Even if the Democrats want to avoid a
fight, the teachers' unions might not let them.
Another possible fight is brewing over the selection of an attorney general,
where the leading candidates appear to be a pair of Western governors -- Marc
Racicot of Montana and Frank Keating of Oklahoma. Although he's actually
somewhat moderate for a chief executive from a state known for its militia
movement, Racicot drew the ire of Democratic loyalists for his role as a Bush
hatchet man during the recent recount fight. Following a Texas meeting with
Bush, Racicot described Vice-President Gore's lawyers as having "gone to war
against America's servicemen and women." Likewise, liberals are suspicious of
Keating -- given his prominent standing as a Roman Catholic pro-life
The striking thing about all this is that for the first time, Bush must stand
on his own. He cannot rely on his top-flight advisers because they will often
disagree. Through the election of Bush and the post-election fight, Americans
comforted themselves with the idea that at least Bush would have a good team in
place. Given the mismatches in talent and energy between Bush and some of his
advisers, the Bush White House could be as conflict-riven as a Balkan mountain
village. And there's not much comfort in that.
Seth Gitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Talking Politics archive