Conservative by 100 percent

January 04, 2001|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- It is a law of the political universe from which, due to an oversight on the part of Providence, George Bush is not exempt: When a Democrat wins a presidential election he is said to have received a mandate to keep his promises, but when a Republican wins he is said to have acquired a duty to be "statesmanlike" by trimming his promises to suit "bipartisanship."

However, Mr. Bush's Cabinet selections communicate his conviction that the election, although close, awarded him 100 percent of the presidency, and he intends to use all of it. The selections also bespeak his confidence and conservatism.

Last fall the media criticized Dick Cheney's low-voltage campaigning -- at least until Mr. Cheney took Joe Lieberman to school during their debate. Now the stories are that Mr. Cheney is such a dynamo he overshadows Mr. Bush. But Mr. Bush's selection of Mr. Cheney indicated, as have subsequent personnel decisions, how confident Mr. Bush is in surrounding himself with strong, seasoned people such as Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld.

With the transition almost cut in half by the Florida unpleasantness, Mr. Rumsfeld has the crucial advantage of already knowing the complex culture in the building -- all 17.5 miles of Pentagon corridors -- he must manage.

Furthermore, Mr. Rumsfeld chaired the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat. By nominating Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush strongly reaffirms his promise of defenses against ballistic missiles.

Critics say missile defenses will aggravate Russia by requiring substantial revision, even renunciation of the 29-year-old ABM Treaty. Mr. Rumsfeld will have the stature to oppose Mr. Powell if Mr. Powell acquires the State Department penchant for avoiding friction with Russia. (During the Rumsfeld commission's work, this axiom was heard: The State Department is like tundra -- anything you do to it improves it.)

The selections of Alcoa Chairman Paul O'Neill (Treasury secretary), Mitch Daniels (Office of Management and Budget) and Colorado's former attorney general, Gale Norton (Interior secretary), reflect the role of think tanks and public interest law groups in fueling intellectual conservatism.

Mr. O'Neill serves on the board of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Daniels is former head of the Hudson Institute. Ms. Norton began her legal career in Denver with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has been, among other things, the legal muscle behind the "sagebrush rebellion" defending Western interests against excessive federal regulation of land and other matters.

During the campaign Mr. Bush endorsed oil and gas exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, something Ms. Norton has long advocated. This is particularly timely now that, partly because of the Environmental Protection Agency's hostility to coal, 90 percent of new power plants burn natural gas, the price of which has increased 50 percent in a month.

Tommy Thompson has been the nation's most tenaciously innovative governor regarding welfare reform tied to work requirements. He has presided over the reduction of the number of Wisconsin's welfare families from 98,000 to 6,700 since 1986. He will become secretary of Health and Human Services at a crucial moment.

The most important congressional act of the last decade was the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which repealed a 61-year-old open-ended entitlement to welfare -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- and set a five-year lifetime limit.

It has been a rousing success -- welfare rolls have been cut in half -- but has succeeded in optimum circumstances, during an unprecedented economic expansion. And the welfare recipients easiest to move into the work force have been moved.

Now the economy is slowing, and the five-year limit will soon begin to bite. Mr. Thompson brings a governor's perspective to what is, post-1996, largely the responsibility of governors.

The most important, and baneful, congressional act of this decade might be passage of the McCain-Feingold bill, "campaign finance reform" expanding government regulation of political speech. If John McCain is right in thinking he now has 60 votes to break a Senate filibuster, the arrival on Mr. Bush's desk of McCain-Feingold will be an early test of Mr. Bush's toughness in Washington: Is he impervious to the disapproval of Mr. McCain's base, the media?

Mr. McCain, who has threatened to disrupt the Senate unless he gets his way, says passage of his bill would be "one of the best ways Gov. Bush could reach out to Democrats."

But another election season has come and gone and what Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell -- Mr. McCain's nemesis and the First Amendment's best friend in the Senate -- has long said is still true: No one has ever lost an election because he or she opposed campaign finance reform.

In 2000 two candidates, Mr. McCain and Bill Bradley, made reform central to their campaigns. Their campaigns expired early. Mr. Bush won 100 percent of the presidency.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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