Vitriol in cabinet vetting
Nomination process becomes more pointed in an era of high-speed opposition research.
WASHINGTON — No one ever promised George W. Bush a lengthy honeymoon, but as confirmation hearings accelerate on the president-elect's Cabinet, the question may be:
Does he get one at all?
The era of bipartisanship, alive and well last week, is already vanishing as tempers and temperatures rise.
From the beginning, the man who called himself a "uniter" and talked up his ability to work with Democrats and Republicans in Austin, Texas, was told that Washington is a different world. If he didn't believe it then, he may now.
Though Mr. Bush's nominee for Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, begins today what is expected to be an easy confirmation, the quick exit of Linda Chavez as secretary of Labor has hardened partisan feelings - and may be a precursor of what's to come on other cabinet vetting.
To a certain extent, this is to be expected, given the close election and the even split in Congress. But more fundamental changes are also at work that make honeymoons in Washington far from guaranteed. As a result, even cabinet confirmations, once relatively benign procedures, have become a stage for epic battles.
"The honeymoon-period era lasted up through Bush I," says David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents.
But since then, the political landscape has changed significantly. For one thing, the rise of third-party candidates has prevented recent presidential winners from securing mandates. There's also been an increase of partisanship on Capitol Hill.
Bickering across party lines is of course not new in Washington, but the extent of that squabbling has grown. Political disagreements used to emerge in policy debates once an administration was on its feet. Now they have moved front and center into the cabinet-confirmation process.
And the hardening of the process, which began with the elder Bush's failure to get John Tower confirmed as Defense secretary in 1989, and firmed up with President Clinton's Cabinet struggles in 1993, seems to be solidifying with Bush in 2001.
In an era of super-fast Internet search engines, massive video archives, and Lexis-Nexis - a searchable record of every major news publication - anything a person wrote or said on TV in the past decade can be pulled up in moments and fed to a growing media.
In 1960, there were about 1,000 reporters with Capitol Hill credentials. Today there are more than 4,000. The 24-hour cable news networks and talk-radio stations create "an almost carnivorous demand for political news," notes G. Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Also, interest groups barrage elected officials and the media with information about a nominee. "I can generate 5,000 to 10,000 calls tomorrow" to Congress about a bill or a nominee, boasts David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. He says he's already sent out 1 million pieces of mail and 500,000 e-mails to activists around the country about cabinet nominations.
The amazing capacity for instant mass mobilization took shape this week in the form of Mr. Keene's new group, Americans for a Bush Cabinet. It aims to counterbalance a powerful coalition of more than 200 liberal activist groups who've amassed what they call an unprecedented drive against a cabinet-level nominee, the Stop Ashcroft Campaign. Former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft is Bush's attorney-general nominee.
Some observers worry that this tougher climate is taking a toll on people's willingness to serve. A new survey by the Brookings Institution of 580 corporate and civic leaders found that half describe the appointment process as "confusing," "embarrassing," or "a necessary evil."
But while the political and public-relations machinery around the confirmation process has grown more sophisticated, some members of the Bush camp that say in Ms. Chavez's case the greatest damage was done by the nominee herself. By not revealing her potential problems, Chavez put her nomination to head the Labor Department at risk and made the transition office look wobbly and uninformed.
Bush has already faced questions of whether his time as Texas governor prepared him for the intensity of Washington's media spotlight.
"When Bush first became governor, he was handled with what Washington would consider kid gloves. There was hardly any critical coverage of him," says Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "Texas governors do not appoint to cabinet posts so there wasn't anything like this."
Mr. Buchanan expects a less ideologically charged selection for the next Labor nominee, "not in the same category as Ashcroft or Gale Norton," Bush's nominee to head the Interior Department.
Whether or not Bush's honeymoon is really over will likely be determined in the next few weeks of confirmation hearings. But Mr. Gergen says the way this election was won - with the Florida recount and Supreme Court decision - "destroys the romance" of the ascension to power.
In normal years, he says, a new president is celebrated and built up as the nation watches a "pageant of democracy." This year that hasn't happened.
Still, there may be a silver lining for Bush. Because he was denied the praise that president-elects usually get with their victories, says Gergen, he may also escape "the tearing-down process" that often follows.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society