Forget bipartisan unity for a Bush administration

January 12, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the Clinton years, the Democrats had to deal with, as Hillary Clinton bitterly put it, "a vast right-wing conspiracy." Now, even before Bill Clinton is out the door, the Republicans are facing, according to an outraged Linda Chavez, "the politics of personal destruction."

The would-be, but won't-be, secretary of labor in the George W. Bush Cabinet, like Hillary before her, prefers to see the rhubarb over questionable behavior as more a vendetta by unspecified foes than the product of self-inflicted acts of political insensitivity.

It has been like this forever, regardless of party, with political figures who always look for an easy villain when they come under fire. Ms. Chavez, declining to go quietly when it became known she had been less than candid on any skeletons in her closet, instead paraded out character witnesses to her past generosity and compassion.

She is probably right in her suggestion that as a compassionate conservative it was more the conservative part than the compassionate that did her in. Her opposition to the minimum wage and other issues close to organized labor's heart guaranteed an offensive from the AFL-CIO against her nomination.

But it was Ms. Chavez herself who provided the ammunition in her use of an illegal alien she took in who "helped out" with household chores in return for occasional walking-around money. This act of charity, or whatever it was, was hardly a recommendation for the job of chief protector of the working man and woman.

It was notable that her intended employer, President-elect Bush, while expressing disappointment that she wouldn't be heading his Labor Department, didn't echo her wail about "the politics of personal destruction." He chose, wisely, to cut his loss quickly, and move on.

Whether he will be able similarly to restrain himself as two other threatened Cabinet nominees, former Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general and Gale Norton for Interior, encounter stiff opposition, will be the real test. His campaign pledge to be "a unifier, not a divider" is hanging out there in neon lights, and there's no better way to ensure partisan division than denigrating critics as hatchet men.

There is nothing new, to be sure, about opposition to Cabinet appointments at the start of a new administration, as Mr. Clinton discovered with his "nanny" agonies in 1993, when his choices of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood blew up. But there is also a tradition of letting a new president have his choice of department heads, with the Senate rejection of John Tower to be the senior George Bush's defense secretary in 1989 the one recent exception.

The circumstances of George W. Bush's election, however, coupled with the even party split in the Senate and narrow Republican edge in the House, put unusual pressure on him to walk a centrist road. His legitimate place in the Oval Office is beyond question constitutionally. But Democrats in Congress and in the country will continue to harbor chagrin, if not resentment, that he is there instead of the man who won half a million more popular votes than he did.

Most of Mr. Bush's leading Cabinet appointments, such as those of Colin Powell at State and Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, will comfort these Democrats. But as the Chavez, Ashcroft and Norton nominations have already demonstrated, they are seen in the opposition party as blatant sops to the far right wing not to be meekly swallowed by labor, civil rights and environmental activists.

On election night, some altruistic academics dared to hope that the closeness of the result, paired with Mr. Bush's stated intention to be a unifier, might produce a genuine bipartisan administration of fusion, with more than a token Democrat in the Cabinet. So far, only former Democratic Rep. Norm Mineta, at Transportation, stands as that token.

Instead, we're hearing demands from some GOP congressional leaders for Mr. Bush to act on his "mandate" with an undiluted partisan campaign agenda, starting with his proposal for a $1.3 trillion tax cut. So much for the wishful thinking about true bipartisanship in the election-night musings of those ivory-tower political scientists.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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