THE Bush administration's lineup is going through some jarring mid-term adjustments for the coming political season. Hard-charging William Bennett, rough-edged and ready for battle on the field of political ideas, has left the Bush team for the second time in as many months. On Thursday he withdrew his acceptance of the president's offer to make him Republican Party chairman.
Mr. Bennett, who left his post as the administration's drug czar a few weeks earlier, was a key new player in a more aggressive and confrontational Republican strategy that was to take hold when the new Congress is seated in January.
His stated reason: Ethics rules would bar him from outside work, particularly from fulfilling two book contracts he has negotiated.
Few Washingtonians have accepted that explanation. Even in White House corridors, notes one aide, ``Nobody knows what to make of it.''
Speculation runs to a clash of personalities with White House chief of staff John Sununu. A Capitol Hill Republican staff member observes: ``Bennett showed extraordinary independence in those two weeks.'' Many conservatives many suspect that Mr. Sununu decided he could not control Bennett or keep him from intruding on policy questions, the aide says.
As one measure of Bennett's value to the GOP, Democrats were relieved to see him go. Bennett, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank, ``is one of the best practitioners of cultural politics in the Republican Party.'' He knew how to jab the ``soft underbelly'' of the fragile Democratic coalition of blacks and wage-earning whites, Mr. Marshall says.
Already, Bennett had drawn some lightning for defending commercials used in North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms's reelection campaign; the ads attacked racial quotas. Democrats, most of whom also denounce quotas, have called the commercials thinly veiled efforts at race-baiting. Bennett called it a valid subject for political debate and looked forward to raising the issue further.
Most speculation about Bush administration resignations in recent weeks has centered on Sununu himself and budget director Richard Darman, the power center at the White House during its first two years. Both staff members alienated conservatives with their handling of the budget negotiations, which cost Bush his no-new-taxes posture.
But if any changes are imminent for either, no sign has appeared.
New, stricter ethics rules may sway other members of the Bush Cabinet or top staff to bail out by the end of the year, according to a senior White House official, speaking in his office moments before Bennett announced his decision outside in the White House driveway.
The other major change was more deliberate. Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos was asked to resign and did so well over a year after rumors first began circulating of his imminent removal. The administration is now looking for a dynamic figure to lead the department - possibly a former Republican governor - who is a strong leader and communicator.
``We might take a little less on the educational background and a little more on the personal talent,'' says a senior administration aide.
The low-key, low-profile Mr. Cavazos was a nearly invisible figure in the Cabinet of one who had promised to be the ``education president.'' Education organizations and a governors' task force, which have been working on national goals for schools, have worked directly with the White House staff. During the most intensive months of meetings between White House and National Governors' Association staff last fall, some participants said they never even saw Cavazos or heard his name mentioned.
Conservatives credited Cavazos with being a steady proponent of parental choice as a way to bring some market discipline to public schools. He was also one of only two Hispanics on the Bush Cabinet. With the selection of outgoing Florida Gov. Bob Martinez to replace Bennett as drug czar, Hispanics will maintain their Cabinet-level representation. White House officials deny any such linkage.
The first Cabinet official to resign, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, seems sure to be replaced by a woman. President Bush has nominated Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois as her replacement. Congresswoman Martin was an unsuccessful Senate candidate this year.