Bush assembles defensive front in advance of Washington move
Cabinet structure hints at survival strategy
By Ian Christopher McCaleb/CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect George W. Bush prepares to make his move to Washington uncertain of the implications of the evenly divided political terrain that looms before him.
Though the Republicans will have control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government for the first time since the early 1950s, no president in recent memory has had to contend with a nation so clearly split along partisan lines.
With a Congress divided neatly down the middle -- and an electorate that seems similarly inclined, based on these last presidential election results -- it might seem that Bush would want to stake a claim to a high piece of middle ground.
But he may not. In some cases, he cannot.
In the days since the Supreme Court ruled against ongoing ballot recounts in Florida, a decision that finally allowed Bush to conduct his administrative transition effort out in the open, the Texas governor has had to navigate a nasty minefield within his own party.
With a variety of Republican constituencies vying for power and influence inside the first GOP administration in eight years, Bush himself has had little time to consider what mischief and havoc the seasoned Democrats in a close Congress could potentially unleash.
Rather, he has found himself taking the recent advice of the Democrats' most revered figurehead to heart. President Clinton, during his two-hour meeting with Bush last week in the White House, simply told the son of the man he trounced in 1992 to "assemble a good team."
Bush's still-unfinished team seems primed to not only wage political combat, but to absorb and deflect some of the worst blows Washington's best, including members of his own party, are capable of meting out.
"His challenge is not going to be Democrats in Washington, it is going to be Republicans," said Evan Smith, a reporter with the Texas Monthly who has covered Bush's tenure as governor.
"I'd like to see the first time that Bush and Tom DeLay get into a trap," Smith added, referring to the powerful House majority whip -- a vocal, controversial conservative and fellow Texan.
Additionally, some of Bush's Cabinet appointments are aimed as direct appeals to groups with whom Bush and the GOP missed their connections in the presidential election -- women and minorities -- despite the Bush camp's blatant pre-election promotion of some prominent potential appointments.
Bush, in hundreds of campaign speeches this past year, said he was not a man of Washington, said he wanted to change the bitterly partisan tone here in the nation's seat of government, and said he would be coming to town with the intention of getting the "people's business" done.
These appointments, the president-elect hopes, will have to go a long way toward proving to the rest of the country that he can get Washington under control, all the while keeping a variety of disparate Republican sectors relatively happy.
Cabinet choices with wide appeal
Bush moves to the nation's capital knowing full well that this city has a low tolerance for new presidents who have to learn on the job. Bill Clinton found out as much in 1992, when the opposition birds of prey began circling in the first few weeks of his first term.
Clinton had a Democratic House and Senate at his disposal. That advantage didn't help him much in the early days of his administration.
Instead, Clinton exhibited a tendency to want to move too hastily toward some of the goals he outlined in his campaign speeches prior to his first term, and his Cabinet appointments were, for the most part, picked to demonstrate conformity with his broad policy visions.
The early results -- such as the vicious debate over gays in the military -- proved disastrous for Clinton.
Bush, credited by many around him for his observational power, has not only taken Clinton's early pratfalls into account, he has taken stock of some of his father's most telling successes, most specifically in the areas of international policy and strategic planning.
In tapping former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as his vice president, retired Gen. Colin Powell as his secretary of state and Stanford administrator Condoleezza Rice as his national security adviser, Bush seems to have conjured a ready-made administration.
Cheney and Powell prosecuted the Gulf War for Bush's father, and both left their earlier service to the United States with impeccable credentials. Rice served as an international policy advisor to the senior Bush.
All three not only bring a wide range of international and military experience to the Bush administration, but each fills vital social and political needs in a Cabinet that is rapidly shaping up as one of the most diverse in recent memory.
Powell, revered among Republicans and Democrats alike for his prowess as a strategist and for his social work following his resignation from the Joint Chiefs, has across-the-board appeal not only here at home, but internationally. In tandem with Rice, Bush has created the first top-tier African American foreign policy team in the nation's history, keeping true to his promise to provide minorities with unfettered access to the highest levels of government.
His appointment of Florida county official Mel Martinez -- a onetime Cuban refugee -- as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development boosts that effort, while securing Bush's standing within Florida's Cuban community, and, Bush hopes, among other Hispanics.
There are other women set to join Rice on the Bush team -- including California's Ann Veneman as Agriculture secretary, and New Jersey's lightning-rod Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, whose very name mentioned among social conservatives often produces unabashed cries of condemnation.
Whitman, tapped late last week to become Bush's Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has been a vocal proponent of abortion rights and lobbied vigorously at recent Republican National Conventions to have the abortion language in the party's platform softened significantly.
Though she'll be positioned at a desk in an agency where she will have little say on such social issues, her nomination has predictably perturbed some staunch conservatives. To a lesser degree, so has Bush's choice of Paul O'Neill for the Treasury Department.
O'Neill has been criticized for earlier statements calling for some form of energy or carbon consumption taxes -- statements he made in his capacity as head of Alcoa Aluminum.
With the O'Neill pick, Bush seeks to appeal to a constituency of one -- Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, with whom O'Neill shares a close personal and professional relationship. Bush is eager to make nice with Greenspan, whose singular influence is thought to drive the markets perhaps more forcefully than any economic indicators -- and who was criticized severely by the senior Bush, who thought Greenspan didn't act quickly enough when the economy fell into a severe recession late in his term.
Unrest among core conservatives
O'Neill's connections and the neutralization of Whitman's social stance haven't convinced some mainstay conservatives, who have continued to blast the Bush Cabinet, despite the recent unveiling of two appointments aimed at soothing their ranks.
Speaking on CNN late last week, family values activist and onetime presidential contender Gary Bauer described Bush's appointments as "unusual," and said he foresaw a "crisis" in the Bush administration.
"I might be in favor of bipartisanship if that means to get some conservatives in the Cabinet," Bauer said, hinting that many of his ideological brethren regard most of Bush's appointments so far as moderate, or too liberal.
"I will guarantee that there will be crisis in the Bush presidency," Bauer continued. "There always are in every president's administration, and when those crises come up, the people that stand with him are not going to be the people telling him to go to the middle or to satisfy the liberals or satisfy
the Democrats. It's going be the conservative base that elected him."
As last week drew to a close, Bush seemed inclined to reach back toward that group of core conservatives. He named outgoing Missouri Republican Sen. John Ashcroft his pick for attorney general, and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson to head up the Department of Health and Human Services.
Thompson is a hero in conservative circles for his dedication to welfare reform -- he was instrumental player in the creation of the massive reform bill that passed the 105th Congress and was signed by Clinton. And Thompson's longstanding opposition to abortion makes him an essential fit at HHS, in the minds of conservatives.
Still, Bauer sounded warnings that a Cabinet as mixed as Bush's could diminish the effect of individual members. Speaking of Whitman's opinions on abortion, Bauer said Thursday that though she'll be in charge of pollution cleanup and control, she be sitting at the table with everyone else, and she'll want to be heard.
"When you are in an administration at a high level, you get to weigh in on every issue. Folks don't just stick with their portfolio," he said. "Appointing her is like waving a red flag in front of the people that stuffed the envelopes, rang the doorbells and made George Bush president."
Cheney's presence has likely blunted more potential conservative criticism. The former congressman and Pentagon head is said to maintain taught control over vast portions of the forming administration's day-to-day operations, following a pattern Bush established in Austin, where he allowed influential people into his inner circle, and let them do much of the heavy lifting.
Winning friends, influencing people
"It was entirely in keeping with George Bush as governor to appoint people he trusts and delegate responsibilities," says Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News. "Cheney is more in control than many of us thought he would be."
Bush was lauded in Texas for his ability to build bridges with the opposition, to joke and hold friendly conversations, to make friends before making policy. He played that aspect of his personality up during the campaign to some degree of success.
That trait is one that Bush will have to refine in Washington, longtime observers of the former governor have said, while his Cabinet and agency appointees do their work and maintain high profiles among all the groups to whom Bush would like to appeal.
Reporters who have covered him for some amount of time say Bush seems to have started slow out of the gate.
"His style is not to go too deeply into the homework, but to surround himself with key people who delve into the issues, come back, give him a summary, then he will make decisions," Slater said. "He will make you like him before he presses you on policy."
But, Slater said Bush appears awed, or humbled, by his newfound responsibilities.
"His demeanor has changed. As president-elect, he seems to be measuring every word," he said.
Before the New Hampshire primary, Slater added, Bush was "nimble and easygoing." Now, "he is much more in control, much more measured, much more reserved."
"He is much more serious, sober. He seems to have aged. Just to watch President-elect Bush, he just seems to be from a different universe than any of us are used to."
But the old side pokes through, Slater said, recounting an encounter with Bush at a holiday party last week.
"We were at a party last night at the governor's mansion, and for a while, for a moment there, I saw the sparkle of the same old George Bush. He was talking about something or other in a rather serious way and then he turned to me, as if to give an aside and said, 'You know, this is really a really big deal.'
"(He) kind of made a face as if, the presidency of the United States -- it's me!" Slater said.