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Insights: Politics

With a disputed election and partisan policies, the self-proclaimed "healing" president has his work cut out for him
Tom Wicker
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Midway through his shortened transition period, George W. Bush -- despite his campaign promises to be a "healer" -- clearly had come out punching rather than pacifying. Perhaps by design, the man who pledged to put an end to partisan bickering in Washington looked as if he'd be a stand-up fighter instead.

He might have been expected to start compromising right away, owing not just to his own rhetoric, but to a razor's-edge election that made him a disputed, minority president nudged into office by a Supreme Court split along partisan lines.

Instead, Vice President Richard Cheney, who looks more and more like the quarterback of the new Bush administration, called a different signal. He said it would be "silly" to expect the new president to abandon his program merely because of a close election. And Bush didn't.

Rather than demanding quick, confidence-building victories, for instance, the new president placed early emphasis on two hotly debated proposals -- for a national missile defense system and a $1.6 trillion tax cut.

Among his notable early appointments was that of former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft -- who'd just lost his reelection bid to a dead man -- to be attorney general. Ashcroft's outspoken opposition to abortion and affirmative action immediately produced promises of a confirmation battle from Democrats, liberals and civil rights activists.

In later appointments, Bush further courted partisan bickering by naming Gale Norton of Colorado as secretary of the interior and Linda Chavez as secretary of labor. Environmentalists regard Ms. Norton as hostile to their cause, particularly on land use; minority groups deplored, then and now, Ms. Chavez's controversial service on the Reagan Administration's Civil Rights Commission.

The Chavez nomination, controversial as it was, failed to last for a different reason. Within days, it was disclosed that the secretary-designate once sheltered an illegal alien woman. Whether she actually had "employed" the woman was in question; but given the aftermath of a disputed election and the precedents from eight years ago, when some Clinton nominees had the same problems with illegal aliens, Ms. Chavez was forced to withdraw her name -- and did so without protest from the Bush transition team.

As if unabashed, however, even by a new Congress barely under Republican control, Bush showed no sign of retreating from some of his more divisive campaign proposals: partially privatizing Social Security, a voucher-like education program, oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and moving slowly, if at all, against global warming.

These moves and intentions, far from ending partisan warfare in Washington, amount to a prescription for more of the same -- intensified. And even if the president precipitates no other battles himself, he will have plenty of conflict thrust upon him.

He must deal, for instance, with the stated intent of his old primary rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, to reintroduce the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. This time the Democrats, holding 50 Senate seats, think they can beat the expected Republican filibuster.


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