The Bush II administration is looking a lot like Bush I, though it also bears some resemblance to the Nixon-Ford and Reagan years. In choosing cabinet members and close advisers, President-elect George W. Bush is reaching into the Republican past for a range and depth of government experience wanting on his own résumé. If there is a political equivalent of comfort food-familiar and consoling-Bush II looks to be it. Oh maybe, the Asiago cheese from Wisconsin (Governor Tommy Thompson), and the smoked elk from Colorado (Gale Norton) are a culinary reach for the down-home cook. Yet, those familiar faces, some from decades ago, belong on the comfort-food menu, especially for all of those who still hanker for Reagan’s third term.

Presidential delegation to more expert and experienced cabinet members was the practice of both Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, neither of whom was a policy wonk. On the other hand, both men were deeply trusted and regarded with affection by a large number of Americans. Bush does not come to office with that cushion: he lacks charisma and shows few signs of political acuity. Nor will he be sheltered even temporarily by the regard of the electorate. Half of registered voters didn’t go to the polls at all, and the more-than-half who did voted for his opponent. In unprecedented circumstances, the presidency is Bush’s to win, or not, post-election.

Perhaps it is the president-elect more than anyone else who needs a good meal of comfort food as he takes office. A close election in which he lost the popular vote and was awarded Florida’s contested electoral vote by the U.S. Supreme Court’s five most conservative justices leaves him on shaky ground, if not constitutionally than certainly politically and psychologically. He must quickly show that he is able to govern the country and his divided party, and that he is able to work with congressional Democrats who will be ready to criticize and resist many of his measures, and certainly some of his appointments.

The men and women Bush has gathered for his administration seem to promise a conservative agenda pragmatically carried out, yet there are some pointed questions to be asked about their plans. While the "national-interest-only" views of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice deserve serious scrutiny, it is those who will oversee the economy, the environment, and the military that initially raise the most serious questions. Bush has been playing up the current economic slow-down, perhaps as a prelude to a large tax cut. But with the deficit now under control is this a financially prudent move? Is the cut intended as a sound economic measure or as part of the continuing Republican effort to downsize government? Do Paul O’Neill, named secretary of the treasury, and Lawrence Lindsey, designated to head the Council of Economic Advisers, have the knowledge or skills for making a soft landing if the downturn grows? Both men will be hard pressed to match the monetary expertise and finesse of Clinton treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers.

Gale Norton (interior) and Governor Christie Whitman (environmental protection) will be in charge of air and water as well as set the rules for federal land use. Their ideas and records are not promising. (We shuddered at and dismissed the thought that the appointment of two women to these posts will leave lots of room for the oil guys to get their way-sounds too much like a sexist conspiracy.)

Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, is said to know the Pentagon and the ins and outs of military planning and technology. He knows or should know that a national missile defense appears to be technologically infeasible, but will he still be the front man who presides over Star Wars II-one of the most bizarre pipe dreams of the Reagan administration?

More happily, we look forward to Governor Tommy Thompson’s crossing swords with congressional Democrats over U.S. abortion policy. There is not much the secretary of health and human services can do about Roe v. Wade as such, but we expect Thompson to conduct an intelligent and challenging debate with those who believe that the abortion right has no limits. About John Ashcroft as attorney general, we are not so sanguine.

Bon appétit to those at the table.

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Published in the 2001-01-12 issue: View Contents
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