Presidential Transition: Less Seems to be More

February 25, 2001

The contested election of 2000 provides an excellent example of what can be gained or lost by cutting the traditional 10- to 11-week transition period in half. President George W. Bush’s transition has been remarkably smooth, compared with those of Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. But the transition’s apparent success belies the increasing difficulties in getting a new administration “up and running.”

Like previous presidents, Bush made his first Cabinet appointments in an area of symbolic significance to him: national defense. In short succession, he announced the selection of Colin L. Powell as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as national-security advisor and Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of Defense. The White House staff, too, was selected quickly, drawn from a circle of friends and advisors. Of the triad that ran the campaign, Karen Hughes was chosen as the president’s counselor, Karl Rove was picked to run political and intergovernmental affairs and the office of public liaison and Joe Allbaugh was selected to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ari Fleischer was named press secretary. Finally, the election’s closeness and contentiousness necessitated that Bush seek a Democrat for his Cabinet. He would have liked Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana for Energy secretary, but Breaux wanted to remain in the Senate. So Bush appointed Clinton’s Commerce secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, as secretary of Transportation.

When Bush finished his Cabinet selections, it was clear that his three staunchest conservative nominees—John Ashcroft (Justice), Gale A. Norton (Interior) and Linda Chavez (Labor)—would be regarded unfavorably by many Senate Democrats, who now hold half those seats. While confirmation hearings are conducted by different committees, the Senate considers an administration’s initial slate of appointments almost holistically. Perhaps there is a point beyond which opposition is perceived as politically unproductive. Bush understood this when he answered a reporter’s question about the Ashcroft nomination: “Well, I expected at least one member of my Cabinet to get a pretty tough hearing. You know, it could’ve been John, it could’ve been somebody else.”

Chavez, a foe of affirmative action, could expect a pretty tough hearing, too. Still, the history of confirmations is that ideological opposition is not sufficient to defeat a person who serves the president. It takes a skeleton in the closet. Chavez’s skeleton was that she had taken an illegal immigrant from Guatemala into her home, and the woman had performed occasional chores and been given $ 1,500 in spending money over two years. Was this Zoe Baird redux? Chavez admitted to “bad judgment” by not informing Bush vetters or the FBI and withdrew her name. Senate Democrats were delighted, yet it was at little cost to Bush. Two days later, Bush announced a replacement and was given credit for acting expeditiously.

Senators would find no skeleton in the closet of Ashcroft. His conservative views on certain issues were deeply controversial, as was his blocking the nomination of a black Missouri judge’s elevation to the federal bench. Two weeks of debate in the Judiciary Committee produced a commitment from Ashcroft to policies he had opposed as senator. This included a statement that “as attorney general I don’t think it could be my agenda” to overturn Roe vs. Wade. His nomination was approved in committee, then in the full Senate with a 58-42 vote. It was a big victory for Bush—but also for Democrats who demonstrated that they could sustain a filibuster if Bush proposed a U.S. Supreme Court nominee beyond their tolerance level. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointedly reminded the president: “I think what has happened with the Ashcroft nomination in terms of divisiveness would look small compared with the divisiveness that would occur if someone of former Sen. Ashcroft’s beliefs were nominated to the United States Supreme Court.”

The Bush Cabinet ultimately included two African Americans, a Japanese American, a Cuban American, a Chinese American and an Arab American. There are four women in the Cabinet, and the national-security advisor is a black woman. Favorable comparisons were made to Clinton’s tortured 1992 efforts to create a cabinet that “looks like America.”

Announcing his appointments, Bush repeatedly noted the “wonderful stories” they embodied. Mel Martinez, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, left Cuba at 15 and lived with two foster families until reunited with his parents. Powell is the son of immigrants from Jamaica. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao came from China at age 8. Mineta was in an internment camp during World War II.

The hallmark of Clinton’s cabinet-building was representativeness. It was imperative to have a woman attorney general and more than one Latino. Strangely, given the similar end result, this was not the primary thrust of Bush’s labors. When asked what sort of message he thought his cabinet appointments would send to America, Bush replied, “People who work hard and make the right decisions in life can achieve anything they want in America.”

Rather than representativeness, Bush’s message was true grit. Clinton’s outstanding quantitative record of opening high-level positions to minorities could not be matched by a conservative administration. But Bush freed his minority appointments from tokenism. He received only 9% of the black vote, yet Powell and Rice will be his premier advisors on foreign relations, and Rod Paige is his secretary of Education, Bush’s No. 1 domestic priority.

When Bush finished his cabinet selection, a reporter asked, “What does your Cabinet say about your management style, about how you intend to make decisions as president?” Bush replied, “First, it says I’m not afraid to surround myself with strong and competent people. . . . I hope the American people realize that a good executive is one who understands how to recruit people and how to delegate, how to line up authority and responsibility, how to hold people accountable for results and how to build a team of people.”

Indeed, Bush had picked some very competent people in a very short time. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman previously headed California’s agriculture department. Mineta had been chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Rumsfeld at defense, Paul H. O’Neill at Treasury and Vice President Dick Cheney had unrivaled backgrounds that combined vast government experience with that of Fortune 500 corporations.

Is there a downside to cutting the presidential transition in half? Chavez thought her downfall was partly the result of the Bush staff’s inability to follow the “normal procedure” of a lengthy background check. But previous full-term transitions, notably those of former Presidents Bush and Clinton, made more serious vetting mistakes. The real problem was that there wasn’t enough time to carry the selection process deeper into the administration’s second-level ranks. So the inauguration came and went without undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in place. Where were the workers who fill in the details and run programs? When might they arrive? And how high is the price for not having them on board when a president wants to “hit the ground running?”

Still, it has been a good first month for the new president. There are at least six reasons for this:

  • Surpassing low expectations. The media’s campaign reporting on Bush put in operation the 1960s adage “Been down so long that everything looks like up.”

  • Learning the lessons of your father’s mistakes. Compare, for instance, the Ashcroft and Norton confirmations in Bush II with the fumblings of the John Tower and Louis Sullivan hearings during Bush I.

  • Adopting President Ronald Reagan’s management formula, focus and delegation. Successfully running a large state seems more instructive than having been vice president.

  • Knowing the talent pool. They may be long of tooth, but having Cheney, Rumsfeld, O’Neill and Powell around for the takeoff are master strokes.

  • Applying a Reaganesque public relations strategy. If it’s Week 1, it must be education reform, if it’s Week 2, it must be faith-based organizations.

  • Luck. Remember poor President Jimmy Carter, so unlucky that he didn’t even get to appoint one Supreme Court justice. So, if your election is contested, it sure is nice if your brother is the governor of the state in contention. And for contrasting purposes, it helps if the outgoing president leaves office in the tackiest way possible.