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Election 2000

CNN's Major Garrett: Bush's latest Cabinet choices

December 22, 2000
2:25 p.m. EST

Major Garrett is a White House correspondent for CNN based in the network’s Washington, D.C. bureau.

CNN Moderator: Welcome to CNN online, Major Garrett.

Major Garrett: Hello, everybody.

CNN Moderator: Why was out-going Missouri Senator John Ashcroft selected as the attorney general designate?

Major Garrett: The two words that come immediately to mind are: "conservative" and "confirmable." Conservatives have been eager to see one of their own appointed to the Cabinet. Because Ashcroft is a former senator, he is more likely to win confirmation than a non-senator with the exact same record on law enforcement and civil rights.

CNN Moderator: Are many of these appointments made with the slim Senate margin in mind?

Major Garrett: Absolutely. Every appointment so far, and I believe all future appointments, will be viewed in part by the president-elect through the prism of confirmability. That is, people who are known quantities and are unlikely to raise concerns or strong opposition from senate Democrats.

Question from Sook: I don't see what experience Christie Todd Whitman has in environmental affairs. Any explanation?

Major Garrett: Well, as governor of New Jersey, she has had to deal with several environmental issues, not the least of which has been the clean up of the New Jersey shoreline.

Presidential Transition

She also spearheaded a referendum in New Jersey that created a large taxpayer trust fund that would pay for the setting aside of one million acres of farmland in New Jersey over the next ten years. This is to preserve open spaces and to halt suburban sprawl. It's the largest preservation effort of its kind in the country.

So, it's not as if the governor has no experience in dealing with environmental issues. Some Republicans might say she has as much, if not more, experience than President Clinton's EPA Carol Browner.

Question from planet: Right now are there any appointees that might not get confirmed?

Major Garrett: Not yet. I think that there were some concerns in the Bush camp that some of the people they were considering for attorney general might run into problems. I think that was one of the reasons they turned to Sen. Ashcroft.

In very subtle and nonpublic ways, senate Democrats have indicated that the attorney general post would be among those they would scrutinize closely. I think Bush wants to avoid all confirmation fights and to try to play it as safe as he can with the attorney general slot while still placing a "law and order conservative" in the post.

Question from maggiejo: It seems to me that a lot of these appointments tend to be for popularity rather than professionalism. Do incoming presidents have to weigh those options often?

Major Garrett: Absolutely, and incoming presidents always look for a blend of qualities. They look for loyalty, skill and increasingly, they look for a cultural and ethnic mosaic. You can see that from the picks so far. I would say the only person so far selected that does not have a strong public background for the position they have been nominated to is Mel Martinez as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Martinez does not have a deep background in issues relating to urban housing. He is a county executive of a suburban county -- Orange county in Florida -- and is largely unknown to housing advocates. But, he has strong ties to Florida's Cuban community and as a Cuban refugee, has a very appealing story that suggests he understands the importance of housing, to immigrants and poorer Americans. But, all the other Cabinet nominees, by any standard, have vast experience in the areas where their departments would oversee.

Question from Sook: What is the biggest difference between the outgoing and incoming Cabinet?

Major Garrett: The incoming Cabinet so far has two big differences. The first deals with the economy. The incoming Cabinet believes the tax cuts are a tool of creating economic growth and a means of preventing Washington from overspending. The current Cabinet views government spending much more favorably and tax cuts much more dimly.

On international policy, the incoming Cabinet wants to challenge Russia and China on issues such as arms control, nuclear proliferation and human rights more aggressively than the current Cabinet.

And lastly, there is a place where national and international policy merge with this new Cabinet. This new Cabinet will embrace and fight for free trade much more aggressively than the current Cabinet. That's not to say the Clinton Cabinet hasn't favored free trade, it has. But it has always tempered its enthusiasm because of opposition of its core labor constituency. The new Cabinet will not feel so constrained.

CNN Moderator: Have any of the conservative think tanks been involved in these Cabinet and staff selections?

Major Garrett: Only at the margins. One of the things that happens throughout the course of a campaign is that think tanks on both sides size up the chances of the party's nominee. The more it looks like the nominee will win the more names they start lobbing in the nominee's direction. So think tanks have been filling President-elect Bush's in-box, if you will, for months. But, the final decision is always made by a very small group of advisors and the president-elect.

CNN Moderator: Which Cabinet positions yet to be filled are of greatest concern to conservatives?

Major Garrett: I would say defense secretary and education secretary. These are areas where conservatives hope the president-elect will clearly change directions. They want a conservative to lead the defense department on behalf of more spending for defense and to reverse some of the social trends in the military. By that, I mean issues dealing with gays in the military, the role that women play in combat positions in the military and the training of men and women as they first enter military service.

On education, conservatives are looking for someone who will support giving states more flexibility to spend federal dollars, and to build a case for allowing parents who are displeased with the public schools to use federal funds to supplement education of their children at private schools or with private tutors.

Question from buuji: What with Whitman getting EPA and Thompson HHS, how much of a litmus test is abortion?

Major Garrett: That's an excellent question. I would say it is a consideration, but not a litmus test. Governor Whitman is not well liked by pro-life conservatives in any Cabinet position. The fact that the president-elect made room for her signals a desire to show moderate Republicans an independence that he will look for skilled people, and not simply rule them out because they disagree on the issue of abortion rights.

As far as Tommy Thompson is concerned, he opposes abortion rights. However, he is better known as an innovator in welfare reform, and that is a role of the Department of Health and Human Services. This department also has a lot to say about education; Thompson favors school vouchers. It is for those reasons, rather than his position on abortion, that he's a good fit for conservatives at HHS.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Major Garrett.

Major Garrett: Good-bye, and thank you for your excellent questions.

Major Garrett joined the interview via telephone from Austin, TX. provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript.

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