The little referee
If George W. Bush thinks getting elected was hard, just wait until he has to mediate clashes between his powerful advisors
By Seth Gitell
Wait until George W. Bush tries to govern a divided nation, Congress, and party. It’ll make getting elected look easy.
Sure, President-elect Bush is putting a bang-up team in place to help him. He convinced the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, to sign on as Secretary of State — something President Bill Clinton couldn’t do. He’s got Condoleeza Rice, a protégé of Brent Scowcroft (and another African-American) on board as his National Security Adviser. And Vice President Dick Cheney hovers above it all exuding confidence and competence.
But getting these people was the easy part. As Bush enters his second week as president-elect, he confronts a party divided over whom should be given key administration positions. The neo-conservatives who live and bleed foreign policy are irate that their favorite candidates — Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, both former Reagan Administration hawks — seem to have been tossed aside. Social conservatives feel snubbed; when Bush addressed the Christian Coalition during the campaign he did so through 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 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, Bush’s defenders repeatedly stressed the number of highly competent advisers that surrounded the candidate. Following Bush’s embarrassing failure of the now infamous pop quiz of world leaders, his team felt it important to demonstrate that Bush would be qualified to handle complicated international problems. 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 the 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 with either Cheney or Powell. What this means is that Bush the lightweight will have to referee between Powell and Cheney — two heavyweights. If Bush chooses wrong, he can expect trouble. Unlike Reagan, a former movie actor turned politician who was also 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. Over the weekend he nominated Powell and Rice. Give Bush credit. Without question, the advancement of two powerful African-Americans signals a symbolic progress for America. He also named former Bush Administration-staffer and Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card as his chief of staff. As a former lobbyist for the auto industry, and a General Motors employee, 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.
Yet consider how Bush solved the first personnel conundrums of his administration. During his campaign for the presidency, Bush relied heavily on political strategist Karl Rove, communications director Karen Hughes, and Card. Though Card has been nabbed for chief of staff, he won’t be the sole voice of the West Wing, period. Bush has already named Hughes a counselor to the president — and is likely to do the same for Rove. The thinking is that each will be at the same level in terms of authority: all will report to Bush, and the president will sort it out if they give conflicting advice. That’s not unique. Such political battling defined the Reagan administration, and made for a decade’s worth of columns for conservative political columnist Robert Novak. But that environment 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 powerful advisor amassing power underneath 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 the Texas governor. Cheney, in particular, was posed to stand off to the side — subservient to Bush.) But this means that Bush will have to personally sort out differences between those directly below him. The stakes are much higher now — and the problems won’t be easily solved with a photo-op.
Already, Bush is struggling to manage the relationship between Cheney and Powell, who were at odds during the presidency of Bush’s father. Many of the same people who favored Cheney being on the ticket opposed Bush’s choice of Powell for Secretary of State. While many conservatives approve of Cheney’s role during the Gulf War, they look more skeptically upon 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 — penned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post expressing skepticism 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 put Powell’s opposition to Gulf War at the center of his piece and described Powell 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 in getting nominated and he’s all but guaranteed to win the second — winning confirmation in the Senate. But he may not win subsequent fights. One such example seems to be the case of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a Vietnam War hero with strong defense credentials, whom Powell wanted as Defense Secretary. Just two days after Powell was named as the nominee for Secretary of State, a serious conflict between Powell and Cheney over Ridge leaked to the press. By Tuesday, Republicans were putting out the cover story that Ridge took himself out of contention for the Defense Department weeks ago. That could be the case, but it seems more like a face-saving gesture to Powell, his ally. In either case, the Ridge affair bodes ill for Bush.
As soon as Ridge’s name first emerged as a serious candidate to go to the Pentagon, the conservative attack machine went into action. Novak launched the first volley at Ridge in his usual Sunday items column (in syndication) 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. Editorializing against Ridge has followed in the Weekly Standard and the National Review. During the weekend, president of the Family Research Counsel and general arch-conservative Gary Bauer took the anti-Ridge campaign one step further calling him a “peacenik-type of congressman during the Reagan years,” according to The National Review Online.
While the moderate Ridge appeared to have won the support of Powell; Cheney — himself a former Secretary of Defense — backed a protégé of his from the Bush presidency, the hawk Paul Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz — a staunch supporter of the missile-defense system dubbed Star Wars — is the candidate both of the right in general and the neo-conservatives in particular. He is the only one in the Bush orbit who would satisfy the hopes of Kristol — founder of the Weekly Standard — and his school of followers that Bush would follow a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy.”
Now, 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 Director of Central Intelligence — or DCI as it is known in Washington parlance — is seen as a bit of an exile. The 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 sub-cabinet position at the Pentagon would give Wolfowitz a foothold. Then, if Ridge or some other Department of Defense head moved on, Wolfowitz might get it. But this is a far cry from the prior claims of Bush supporters early in the campaign that Perle and Wolfowitz were influential advisers and might get important jobs in the administration.
While as of this writing it is unclear whom Bush will select for Secretary of Defense, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that Bush was leaning toward naming former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. Coats himself, however, is not free from criticism. The Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military is circulating Coats’s record as an opponent of gay rights during his time in the Senate. Unlike Powell, who merely dealt with the issue of gays in the military, Coats voted a number of times against gay rights legislation — including a bill against job discrimination against gays and lesbians and a Hate Crimes tracking bill. So by solving one conflict — that between foreign policy hawks and doves — he’ll create another. Wolfowitz, incidentally, like his mentor Cheney, lacks anti-gay baggage.
Even though picking Wolfowitz would seem like the rational thing to do 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 that he can step in for Cheney as vice president in 2004 — or before. Should Cheney, who has had a number of heart attacks, the most recent of which took place right before Thanksgiving, die in office, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution would kick in — just as it did after Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 — calling upon Bush to nominate a new vice president who would then have to be confirmed by the House and Senate. The theory goes that, with a post as Secretary of Defense, Ridge could pick up the foreign policy experience necessary to make him a shoo-in for confirmation.
More flack from the left — and right
More muted criticism is circulating around Rice’s nomination as National Security Advisor. Many in conservative foreign policy circles in Washington blame her and her mentor — Brent Scowcroft — for some of the other failings of the Bush Administration. For example, in 1991 Rice crafted a now notorious speech given by President Bush in the Ukraine that seemed to argue against the break-up of the Soviet Union. That speech is now known among foreign policy eggheads as the “Chicken Kiev Address.” But for Bush, Rice’s numerous positives — her expertise, her charisma, her background — outweigh such sniping. Where Rice won’t have influence, however, is when she tries to get her own people into the administration. There is little chance, for example, that Rice’s former colleague on the National Security Council, Richard Haas, a Middle East specialist, will take a prominent role in the administration. Instead, another Middle East expert — well regarded by Rice and former Secretary of State James Baker — is emerging as a new foreign policy guru: Ambassador Ed Djerian.
Yet picking Djerian as a special Middle East coordinator, who as a former ambassador to Syria is a member of the classic State Department school that favors close ties to Arab states, could cause Bush some trouble in Congress, where there still are some staunchly pro-Israel representatives from the Christian religious right such as Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona. In addition, Reverend Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition is currently pushing a pamphlet on “why Jerusalem must not be relinquished” and would not welcome a high profile role by Djerian. What will Bush do? Give Djerian a prominent role? Or placate the Evangelicals on the international side by minimizing people like Djerian and embracing efforts to fight Christian persecution and slavery throughout the world?
Even if he chooses the latter, 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 redlines could spark a conflagration — for example, a pro-life zealot at Health and Human Services, a union-buster at the Department of Labor. But, say Democrats, they will have to carefully choose their battles.
A test for the Democrats will be a position such as the Secretary of Education, where Bush might want to place Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin or Reverend Floyd Flake, a former New York Democratic congressman, both advocates of school vouchers. But the teachers’ unions — a core Democratic constituency — will go apoplectic with such a figure heading the Education Department. Even if the Democrats want to avoid a fight, the teachers’ unions might not let them.
Another possible fight is brewing at Attorney General where the leading candidates appear to be a pair of Western governors — Marc Racicot of Montana and Frank Keating of Oklahoma. While actually somewhat moderate for a chief executive from a place that serves as the home of militiamen, 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 high 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 upon his top-flight advisers because they will often disagree. Through the election and post-election fight, Americans comforted themselves with the idea that Bush would at least have a good team in place. Given the mismatches in talent and energy between Bush and some of his advisors, the Bush White House could be as conflict-riven as a Balkan mountain village. There’s not much comfort in that.
Seth Gitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.