Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2001

Cabinet choices indicate Bush is off to strong start

January 7, 2001


— The differences between the Cabinet choices of former President George H.W. Bush and President-elect George W. Bush speak volumes about the changes that have occurred in the past 12 years in both the nation and the Republican Party.

Broadly speaking, the new Cabinet reflects both the growing diversity of American society and its leadership elites, and the greater conservatism of the GOP. There's more experience and less cronyism in this Cabinet, a higher level of capability and a better balance between the national security wing and the domestic policy side. Overall, it suggests that, though notably less well-trained for the presidency than his father, this President Bush shows a keen grasp of at least one aspect of national leadership finding and using talent.

The Cabinet sworn in back in 1989 consisted of 10 white males, two Hispanics, one African-American and one woman. The stars of the group turned out to be Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. They made their reputations in the Gulf crisis and in managing the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire. With one or two exceptions, those who headed the other 12 departments left little in the way of landmark changes.

The most notable and most outspoken figure on the domestic side of that government was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who had to clean up the scandals left behind by the Reagan administration and battle against a blanket of White House indifference to the needs of center-city residents, estranging himself from the president in the process.

The new Bush Cabinet has white males in only 6 of the 14 posts. The other jobs went to three white women, two black men, a Hispanic man, a Hispanic woman and an Asian-American man, Norman Mineta, who also happens to be a Democrat serving in the Clinton Cabinet.

Except for its predictable partisan bias, the Cabinet accurately reflects the changing composition of America's civic leadership, and it reinforces the message from last summer's Republican National Convention that Bush aspires to expand the reach of the Republican Party into minority communities traditionally aligned with the Democrats.

He is battling ingrained skepticism and tough odds, and the success of that strategy won't be measured until the elections in 2002 and 2004. Meantime, the leaders of those communities face their own test in deciding whether to welcome or reject the entree these appointments offer.

At the same time, the new Bush choices signify and symbolize the steady rightward shift of the center of gravity within the Republican Party. The elder Bush's attorney general was former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a moderate who was constantly scrambling to adapt to the changes of the Reagan era. In former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, the new Justice Department will have a committed leader of the Christian right in perhaps the most sensitive of all Cabinet positions.

Instead of a weak former congressman, Manuel Lujan, at Interior, Bush has named a James Watt disciple, former Colorado Atty. Gen. Gale Norton, who seems both more dedicated to, and capable of, reversing the land management practices of the past eight years. And instead of the deliberately bland Elizabeth Dole at Labor, Bush has picked a conservative ideologue in Linda Chavez to run the department whose regulatory work has huge impact on people and business.

In the areas of strength in his father's Cabinet, Bush has matched the talent, with Colin Powell at State and Don Rumsfeld returning to Defense to say nothing of the advantage of having Cheney in the vice presidential office then occupied by Dan Quayle.

He also has upgraded Treasury significantly. Instead of Nicholas Brady, a financier crony of his father's, whose bland reassurances that the economy would straighten out by itself contributed to the elder Bush's 1992 defeat, the new Treasury chief is Paul O'Neill, a businessman of remarkable intellectual range.

Except for HUD and Commerce, where cronyism seems to have influenced the choices of Mel Martinez and Donald Evans, the outer Cabinet departments will be headed by people who at least match, and in notable cases, far exceed their Bush I predecessors in experience, ability and energy.

If Mineta at Transportation, Ann Veneman at Agriculture, and especially Roderick Paige at Education and Tommy Thompson at Health and Human Services come close to matching their previous accomplishments, the country will be well served.

Overall, a strong start promising action, political controversy and serious policy debate.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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