The Winner’s Short Transition Spells Trouble

December 12, 2000

Like the cast of “The Poseidon Adventure,” Governor Bush and Vice President Gore have made their way to the hull of the nation’s upside-down ship of state in hopes of a rescue by vote counters or Supreme Court justices.

Once cut free of the disaster that has beset the electoral process, however, both will confront a morning after worthy of another Maureen McGovern hit. With five weeks left to the inauguration, one or the other will have to mount a transition to governing in record time.

The two campaigns have taken predictable positions on the continued delay. The Bush team has talked of a governing crisis if the transition does not start soon, urging an end to the vote counting lest the nation drift into recession and international crisis without a firm hand at the policy tiller. The Gore staff has argued that transitions are more a historical convenience than necessity, thereby providing plenty of time to determine the true winner in Florida.

The truth is somewhere in between. The two candidates have spent the last four weeks doing pretty much what they would have done had either been declared president-elect. Both have selected their White House staffs and made their top Cabinet choices, and both have almost certainly made some initial legislative decisions.

Although life would have been easier had one or the other been invited to occupy the formal transition headquarters at 1800 G. St. in Washington, Bush and Gore have laid the foundation for successful transitions from campaigning to governing.

Unfortunately, both transitions have nowhere to go until someone declares Bush or Gore the president-elect. Prepared though they are, they can only watch as the delays start to take their toll on the two future presidencies.

Consider what Bush and Gore will not be doing next week if the impasse continues. First, they will not be moving their Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officers into the concrete pipe called the presidential appointments process.

Even before the current delays began, the next president would have been lucky to have his Cabinet confirmed by November 2001, more than nine months after Inauguration Day. That is how cumbersome the appointment process has become. But if the delays linger on much longer, President Bush or President Gore will be lucky to have a full administration confirmed by February or March 2002.

Second, Bush and Gore will not be sculpting the federal budget in preparation for what promises to be a partisan battle over spending priorities. Even in the best of times again, building a budget is no small task. President Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, worked for 2 1/2 months on the 1981 budget and still made mistakes that wreaked havoc with the federal deficit, and created a political firestorm with proposed Social Security cuts. The longer the delays continue, the less time the next president’s budget team will have to change President Clinton’s bare-bones budget proposal into a vehicle for budget and tax priorities.

Third, Bush and Gore will not be doing photo-ops at the White House, holding Capitol Hill meetings, accepting phone calls and visits from foreign dignitaries, and receiving face-to-face briefings that constitute the ceremonial transition from campaigning to governing. But for a few fireside chats here and there, neither candidate has had an opportunity to seem very presidential in recent weeks. Bush has been pinned down by a de facto no-fly-zone surrounding Texas, while Gore has been appropriately reluctant to use his access to the White House to wrap himself in the prestige of the presidency.

Finally, Bush and Gore will not be learning the toughest job in the world. It does not matter how close either man has been to the Oval Office, whether as son or vice president. The only way to learn the job of president is to do the job of president. And the transition is an essential tutorial.

None of this means that the nation is at risk should the counting continue. The federal government is perfectly capable of running long into the coming year on momentum alone, even if there is a bit of a wobble as the Clinton administration appointees head home. The nation is learning once again that federal employees are essential to a functioning government, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis.

Nevertheless, the continued delays do create the very real possibility that the next president will still be assembling his Cabinet and making policy choices long after the 2004 presidential campaign begins. That is a morning after that may make the winning candidate wonder whether he might have been better off going down with the ship after all.

The writer is director of the Brookings Center for Public Service and a contributing editor at Government Executive magazine.