Washington President Bush is quietly building the most conservative administration in modern times, surpassing even Ronald Reagan in the ideological commitment of his appointments, White House officials and prominent conservatives say.
As Bush fills out his sub-Cabinet and White House staff, he has turned to a large number of formidable intellectuals drawn from conservative think tanks, journals and law firms. The appointments have come as a surprise even to conservative leaders, who expected Bush, particularly after the disputed presidential election, to follow a centrist path closer to his father's.
"This administration is shaping up to be the best," said Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative. "When Reagan ran for office, even when Nixon ran, it was the campaign that was lovey-dovey. Then, when they got in, they didn't know who you were. Here, the Bush campaign didn't pay any attention to us, but as soon as they got in, they started taking notice. This is something that I've never experienced before."
Michael Horowitz, a veteran of the Reagan White House now with the conservative Hudson Institute, concurred. "In many respects, this is better than the Reagan administration," he said.
Bush's collection of "movement" conservatives, those identified with moral, religious or small-government causes, is wide-ranging: Cuban-born Otto Reich, active in Reagan's anti-Sandinista efforts in the 1980s, will head the State Department's Latin American operation; Christian activist Kay Coles James, former dean of the Robertson School of Government at Pat Robertson's Regent University, will head the Office of Personnel Management; slated to be solicitor general is Theodore Olson, who served on the board of the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded American Spectator magazine and argued a pivotal Supreme Court case against affirmative action.
Bush administration officials say the appointment of conservatives should not be surprising because Bush is a conservative. They also say the appointments do not necessarily translate into a right-wing agenda. They point out that Bush continues to make his campaign themes including education, tax cuts, and military and entitlement reform top priorities.
"The president is reaching out to experienced individuals of the highest integrity who share his commitment to a conservative agenda with compassionate results," said Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman.
Even moderate Republicans say they are pleased with the lineup. "I am struck by the depth of the Bush bench," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., noting that the appointments "don't run up any red flags."
Still, Bush's appointments may surprise those who interpreted Bush's soothing campaign rhetoric to mean that he was, if not a moderate, then a "new kind of Republican," as the campaign often said. Liberals believe such appointments explain why the Bush administration has taken actions on controversial issues that did not surface much during the election: abandoning a pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions, restricting labor unions and abortion rights, revoking ergonomic and arsenic regulations, and tightening bankruptcy law.
"Across the board, it's obvious that the right wing is in control. And it's a right-wing agenda that's being implemented," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.
At first, conservatives and other observers believed Bush's gestures to the right were simply "outreach," building up loyalty from his base of support to strike deals with Democrats later. After all, Bush's top three advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Andrew H. Card Jr. were not regarded as movement conservatives, and his appointments in Texas tended to be establishment Republicans.
But conservatives no longer suspect Bush is merely placating them so they don't abandon him as they did his father. "These folks are good, solid conservatives, which warms my heart," said Frank Donatelli, who served as political adviser to the Reagan White House. Although conservatives in the first Bush White House tended to be outcasts or relegated to Vice President Dan Quayle's office, they dominate many crucial areas of the White House now, including Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
One reason for the larger number of conservatives in the new Bush administration is the expanded talent pool. "At the time Nixon became president, there just weren't many conservatives in America of a philosophical base," said David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute, noting there were mostly country-club Republicans or segregationists. "By the time Reagan became president, people who had read (economist) Milton Friedman or who were kids during (Barry Goldwater's heyday) were ready to be sub-Cabinet or White House aides." Now these same people are seasoned and ready to govern, joined by clerks of conservative judges.
At the same time, American culture has grown more conservative, with support for the welfare state fading. For conservatives now, "their views are based much more on academic support than Reagan ever had," said Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute.
Modernizing the model
Growing up in Texas, becoming a businessman during the Reagan revolution, serving as a governor of a southern state, Bush is the product of the changing times. "He's modernized the Reagan model," said GOP strategist Scott Reed.
But perhaps the most significant reason the new Bush administration has eclipsed Reagan's in conservatism is the absence of moderate dissent. There is no equivalent to Richard Darman, Reagan's former budget chief, a New England moderate who had no patience for conservatives' ideas.
"The Reagan administration was wracked by quarrels between people who had strong ideological commitment to the president's campaign positions who generally lacked expertise, and people who had expertise who, by and large, didn't respect the president's campaign positions," said a philosophical conservative working for Bush. Now, they're one and the same.
There is a danger that the lack of competing views in the famously tight White House could cause Bush's advisers to become stale and insular, but there is no concern about that yet. "There isn't a lot of competition in the policy arena," a Bush official said with satisfaction.
Bush seems to care about hiring more than Reagan did, accepting the idea that "personnel is policy." The new president also seems determined to avoid the ways of his father, who preferred businesslike managers. "They tended to be the moderates, the people who had gone to the prestige prep schools and disproportionately tended to have Roman numerals behind their names," said conservative Morton Blackwell, a longtime Republican National Committee member who was an adviser to Reagan in his first term.