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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Early Bush picks show political savvy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If the old saying is correct that "the proof is in the pudding," then President-elect George W. Bush is looking like a master chef.

While he has not yet selected his entire cabinet or his team of senior advisors, the president-elect's first round of announcements suggest a high level of political sensitivity.

Bush says he opposes quotas, but he appears to be taking a page out of Democrat Bill Clinton's playbook by picking an ethnic, gender and racial mix of cabinet-level officials. The selections not only constitute a reaching out to particular groups, but also send a message to all Americans that Bush is tolerant, moderate and reasonable.

By selecting Colin Powell as his secretary of state and Condolizza Rice as his national security advisor, Bush picked two highly regarded African Americans. While those selections were telegraphed long ago, they help blunt some of the criticism and complaints about Bush's election that has come from black political leaders.

But the president-elect didn't stop with Powell and Rice. He has now picked a Hispanic (as well as another to be his chief counsel), a couple of women, an experienced businessman and a high-profile conservative. And there is talk of more women, conservatives, a Native American and, possibly, a Democrat.

The selection of Sen. John Ashcroft, an unapologetic conservative who previously served as Missouri's attorney general and governor, as Bush's attorney general was an excellent choice. Conservatives grumbled about the selections of Powell and Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (as director of the Environmental Protection Agency), but neither Republican will be dealing with the sorts of issues - abortion, affirmative action, school choice and taxes - that often separate moderates and conservatives.

Ashcroft, on the other hand, was tapped for one of the most high profile, important cabinet positions. He'll be involved in controversial issues that conservatives care about most. GOP conservatives had to stomach a number of moderates in the first round of cabinet and cabinet-level selections, but they got what they needed in the selection of attorney general.

Naturally, liberals complained about Ashcroft's selection, noting that he scuttled the nomination of a black judge, opposes abortion rights, and called for President Clinton's resignation. But opponents aren't likely to derail the Missouri senator's nomination.

Bush had been expected to name a Democrat early to his administration, but a number of Democrats wooed by the president-elect (such as Sen. John Breaux and former congressman Floyd Flake) have taken themselves out of the running. Others mentioned initially (such as Cong. Charlie Stenholm) apparently have been passed over.

The political reality of the day, however, is that few current Democratic members of the House or Senate would seriously consider joining the Bush administration. Both houses are too narrowly divided to allow sitting Democrats to give up their seats.

Bush may still woo a Democrat into his administration, but unless Texas Democratic Cong. Ralph Hall, a friend of the Bush family, accepts an appointment, the president-elect may have to settle for a Democrat who once held office.

While Bush's first round of cabinet picks have been savvy, the president-elect will ultimately be judged on how he governs. In that regard, it will be more important how he deals with education, health care, tax, abortion and Social Security than whom he picks to run federal departments. And when it comes to making politically sensitive appointments, Bush will face his first real test when he has a Supreme Court vacancy to fill.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2000

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