The Boston Phoenix December 21 - 28, 2000


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

STAR PLAYERS? Condoleeza Rice (top) and Colin Powell(bottom)have already been nominated.

Wait until George W. Bush tries to unite a divided party, Congress, and nation. It'll make getting elected look easy.

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 competence.

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 conservatism.

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.

Clashing conservatives

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 foreign-policy guru.

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 them."

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 activist.

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 sgitell[a]

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