latimes.com: Bush's call for civil tone gets rude response
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- So much for changing the tone in Washington.
During the 2000 campaign, President-elect George W. Bush repeatedly promised to soothe the partisan hostilities that have raged across Washington during Bill Clinton's tumultuous two terms. But the sudden withdrawal Tuesday of Linda Chavez, his Labor secretary nominee, and the escalating conflict over two of his other Cabinet appointees show how difficult it will be to end the political warfare simply by changing the occupant of the Oval Office.
As Chavez's fall demonstrated, Washington's toxic climate is shaped by forces much deeper than the president's personality--key among them a cycle of attack and counterattack between the major parties that has made indiscretions, which once might have seemed minor, loom as disqualifying offenses.
"It has less to do with [who is] the president than the character of the American political system," said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. "It is structural, in other words, not personal."
The stumble out of the gate has become a rite of passage for new presidents in this era of increased tension over appointments. Bush's father was bloodied when the Senate rejected his choice of John Tower as Defense secretary; Bill Clinton's first two attorney general prospects were forced to withdraw over charges of employing an illegal immigrant, similar to the issue that felled Chavez.
While uneasy Republicans immediately asked why Bush's team had not unearthed Chavez's problems themselves, her departure is unlikely to have any measurable long-term effect on Bush's policy agenda. Still, analysts said, it could embolden liberal groups taking aim at Bush's two other most conservative Cabinet choices: attorney general nominee John Ashcroft and Interior secretary designee Gale A. Norton.
Indeed, one stark lesson of these sharpening nomination struggles is that neither the president nor the Congress can entirely enforce a cease-fire in Washington, even if they want to do so.
Senate Democrats, after initially signaling deference, are increasing their resistance to Bush's most controversial choices largely in response to pressure from Democratic interest groups. That dynamic was underscored Tuesday when an alliance of civil rights, environmental and abortion rights groups launched a formal campaign against Ashcroft.
Meanwhile, despite Bush's call for a more civil tone, a coalition of conservative interest groups are preparing a fierce defense of Ashcroft and Norton that could include television ads against Democratic senators who decide to oppose them. "Both sides know the last election was just the beginning of the next election," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which has helped to organize the new coalition. "It's clear there has been no attempt to have any kind of getting along."
Which is not exactly what Bush was hoping would happen.
As a candidate, Bush portrayed himself as a "uniter, not a divider," and he pledged to restore bipartisan cooperation after the frequently incendiary conflict of the Clinton years. Though he did not absolve the Republican Congress for the atmosphere, Bush mostly blamed Clinton, who he said had run "the most relentlessly partisan administration in our nation's history." Bush promised to strike "a different tone" that restores "civility and respect to our national politics."
Washington's negative tone predates Clinton
Some analysts said that Bush minimized the role of much deeper forces that predated Clinton's administration and are showing clear signs of outliving it.
"It would be incredibly naive to say that it was Bill Clinton who brought partisanship to Washington," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
At least four factors that contributed to Washington's partisan bitterness over the last generation are already apparent in the battles over Chavez, Ashcroft and Norton.
The first is the systematic use of ethical allegations as a tool of political warfare. Politicians have accused their opponents of scandal since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. But over the last 20 years, the two major parties have employed such accusations at a much greater rate than ever.
This cycle--what Chavez described Tuesday as "search and destroy" politics--traces back at least to attempts by Democrats to use the "sleaze factor" against President Reagan, charging that his administration was rife with corruption. Later in the 1980s, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used an ethics investigation to topple then-House Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat. When Gingrich became speaker in 1995, Democrats turned the tables and used an ethics inquiry to weaken him. And throughout the Clinton years, Republicans hobbled his administration with relentless congressional investigations and demands for special prosecutors.
Now the pattern is continuing with the withdrawal of Chavez after revelations that she gave money to an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who lived in her home and performed some household tasks in the early 1990s. Though resistance to Chavez's nomination first centered on her conservative views about racial preferences in hiring and other issues, it was questions about her knowledge of the Guatemalan's immigration status and whether the payments represented wages that led to her withdrawal.
"We are inevitably going to see efforts to use scandal and to derail nominees based on whatever information can be dug up about them," said Ginsberg.
The second long-term trend reasserting itself is the broadening of nomination fights beyond ethical considerations. The only two Cabinet appointments rejected on the Senate floor since the 1920s--Lewis Strauss, Dwight D. Eisenhower's choice as Commerce secretary in 1959, and Tower in 1989--both faced ethical charges. Over the last 15 years, though, both sides have routinely resisted presidential nominees not because they find them ethically deficient but because they disagree with their views.
Senate Democrats scuttled the nomination of Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork on those grounds in 1987. Senate Republicans used the same reasons to reject a procession of Clinton judicial nominees and sub-Cabinet appointments, such as Bill Lann Lee, the president's choice for the top civil rights job in the Justice Department.
Liberals said that the precedent the GOP Congress set in shelving Lee and other nominees provides ample justification for the Senate to reject Ashcroft or Norton solely because of their political views--despite the claim from Bush aides that the Senate owes the president deference on his choices.
"I agree with them in terms of what historically the Senate rule has been," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal civil liberties group opposing Ashcroft. But Neas argued that Ashcroft, a senator from Missouri until he lost his reelection bid in November, "and his friends on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate have changed the rules in the last six or seven years" with their opposition to a parade of Clinton nominees to the executive and judicial branches.
Still, political scientist Paul Light noted that, while ideological concerns were used to reject sub-Cabinet appointments and Bork, the Senate has never rejected a Cabinet nominee solely on those grounds. "The question about Ashcroft is, does [a charge of] ideological extremism constitute a reason for rejecting a Cabinet nominee by itself?" Light asked.
The third continuing trend that Bush confronts is the role of interest groups in driving Washington's conflict. To a large extent, the battle over Chavez, Ashcroft and Norton has been occurring outside the party system itself--pitting liberal groups such as the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People against conservative interests such as Americans for Tax Reform, the National Rifle Assn. and the Christian Coalition.
Most ominously for Bush's promise of a more civil tone, both sides see these initial skirmishes as a warmup for the battle over any Supreme Court appointments that the new president might make.
"The activist left is running this like their Spanish Civil War, dusting off all their weapons, seeing what works, taking the measure of the new administration, taking the measure of the Democrats in the Senate. . . . And what we are trying to do is see that they get the message very quickly that they are not running on a clear field," said Keene, the conservative activist. "I think they are warming up for the Supreme Court, so it becomes very necessary [to resist them] for that reason."
Battles extend the campaign season
Finally, the struggle over Bush's most controversial nominees underscores the tendency of both sides to erase the boundary between governing and campaigning. On the one hand, Bush's selection of Chavez, Ashcroft and Norton--all more conservative than his father's initial choices for the same jobs--demonstrates his determination not to alienate his conservative base the way the elder Bush did during his presidency.
On the other hand, many Democrats believe that, even if they cannot ultimately block Ashcroft and Norton, they can use these battles to define Bush as more conservative than he portrayed himself during the campaign. In effect, Democrats are taking a page from the 1993 strategy of congressional Republicans, who used the controversy over Clinton's proposal to allow gays to serve openly in the military to damage, at the outset of his presidency, his portrayal of himself as a cultural centrist.
"If the first impression George Bush makes is [that] he is outside the mainstream of America, he's going to have a hard time playing catch-up over the next four years," said Democratic pollster Mellman.