||Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.
The Raimondo fiasco
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The most charitable explanation of why President Bush's choice to be the government's manufacturing czar crashed and burned last week is sheer incompetence.
But the real causes of this embarrassment look like something worse: secrecy, deceptiveness and vindictiveness in this administration.
It could be a script from television's "West Wing." Nebraska industrialist Tony Raimondo was selected to be the newly created assistant secretary of manufacturing in the Commerce Department at the recommendation of his friend and business associate, the state's Democratic senator, Ben Nelson.
But before Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans' scheduled announcement, the appointment was leaked to Sen. John Kerry. The prospective Democratic presidential nominee then revealed that Raimondo runs a factory in China. Senate Republican leaders won White House agreement not to make the nomination, and Bush aides blamed Nebraska's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel.
The incompetence stems from White House failure to notify Hagel or any other Republicans in advance. That the process of vetting an important nominee fell apart in the fourth year of the Bush administration defies credibility.
Somewhere in the White House, too-clever-by-half staffers made a decision to sneak through Raimondo's nomination without telling Hagel. That failed process gives Republicans plenty to worry about on the eve of a long, hard election campaign.
Had Hagel been notified, he would have informed the White House of two political facts of life. The first was Raimondo's factory in China. Hagel is a sophisticated former businessman who understands the global economy and sees no sin in an American manufacturer setting up a plant in China selling strictly to the Chinese market and simultaneously generating sales jobs at home.
But Hagel is also a politician who understands that "China" is a buzzword in today's highly politicized Washington. It made no political sense to name a manufacturing czar who owns a factory in China.
The second fact of life that would have been imparted by Hagel to the White House is that Tony Raimondo may be a registered Republican but is not a loyal Republican. He supported then Gov. Nelson's 1996 bid for the Senate against underdog Hagel.
After providing private jet transportation for the heavily favored Nelson's losing campaign, Raimondo took Nelson on his Behlen Manufacturing board (where he still serves as an unpaid adviser).
Imagine Hagel's astonishment when an aide gave him an Associated Press dispatch last Wednesday disclosing Raimondo's selection. Kerry made the actual first announcement, and it was not difficult to figure how he found out.
A former Nelson press aide now works for the Kerry campaign. Naturally, Kerry knew all about the factory in China, and Democrats -- in their current mood of economic jingoism -- took the Senate floor to ridicule Bush's choice and effectively kill the nomination before it was made.
Appalled, Secretary of Commerce Evans called Hagel to say he had thought surely the senator had been notified about Raimondo. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card phoned Hagel with the same message.
But Hagel was not alone in being kept out of the loop. Nobody called Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell or Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (who would preside over Senate confirmation). Nor was Nebraska's Republican Gov. Mike Johanns informed.
Somebody at the White House other than Andy Card apparently made a decision to go with Nelson, a rare Senate Democrat who occasionally votes with the president, over Hagel, a Republican who always backs Bush (voting for administration bills at rates of 96 percent, 98 percent and 98 percent in Bush's first three years).
It made no apparent difference at the White House that Hagel and Johanns are co-chairmen of the president's re-election campaign in Nebraska.
Chuck Hagel may vote the right way but speaks his mind all too often to please the White House. Presidential aides, talking not for quotation, unfairly blamed Hagel for killing the nomination. One Republican source close to the White House said Hagel was not informed in advance because he simply cannot be trusted.
Those remarks suggest what's wrong with George W. Bush's operation heading into a presidential campaign. The Raimondo fiasco points to failings that will not be corrected if they are not admitted.