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Bush team shows an ability to cut its losses quickly
Before Jan. 9, the Bush-Cheney transition was operating like a purring engine.
The contrast with President Clinton's transition in 1992 was striking. Clinton took weeks, sometimes months, to fill important jobs, a pattern that lasted throughout his presidency and hurt his ability to implement his policies.
President-elect George W. Bush, faced with a drastically shortened transition period, in contrast whipped through the nomination process, producing a Cabinet of experienced officials, ranging from a Democrat to several conservative Republicans, in 2½ weeks.
Linda Chavez's withdrawal Jan. 9 from consideration as labor secretary was, on the face of it, the result of a major miscalculation. Clearly Bush did not envision his nominee withdrawing within a week of her selection, 11 days before his inauguration, prompting crowing by union leaders and other Bush adversaries.
Yet Chavez's rapid exit reflected an ability by the Bush team to cut its losses and move on. The first reports that Chavez had housed an illegal immigrant emerged Jan. 7.
"She could have had a very confrontational hearing and withdrawn afterward, and it would have received a lot more attention and played out for another week," said Al Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of "The Keys to a Successful Presidency."
The speed of Chavez's withdrawal was in marked contrast to the case of Lani Guinier, Clinton's first choice to head the Justice Department's civil rights division in 1993. When critics began attacking Guinier's writings on legal and racial issues, it took several weeks for Clinton to decide to withdraw her nomination, admitting he had not read all her writings before nominating her.
Nonetheless, Chavez's withdrawal was clearly a setback for a transition team that had been proud of its professionalism and smoothness. The Cabinet was chosen quickly with few premature leaks.
Bush's embryonic Cabinet includes two other controversial nominees: John Aschroft, the attorney general-designate, and Gale Norton, slated as interior secretary.
Now that metaphorical blood has been shed and the system has received a sacrifice, it may be harder for opponents to persuade senators to defeat Ashcroft and Norton. But Bush's adversaries say that they are emboldened by the quick work they made of Chavez, and that her downfall shows that controversial nominees are vulnerable.
In the news conference announcing her withdrawal, Chavez insisted that she, not Bush's aides, decided it was time for her to pull out. If that is the case, it showed a discipline not always in evidence in Washington.
The alternative would likely have been a steadily mounting controversy that risked eclipsing anything else Bush tried to do. And Chavez faced a strong likelihood of defeat in the Senate, which would have handed Bush an embarrassment just days after taking office.
Chavez's problem may have been overlooked because Bush moved so quickly to assemble his team. Also, Chavez's background as a seasoned official -- she headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the Reagan years -- may have led Bush's aides to assume she had been thoroughly vetted. Either way, the Bush team quickly ran into the culture of Washington, where weaknesses are found and exploited.
"They made a serious error here, because in this situation, with all of her public statements, you would have thought the Zoe Baird question would have been one of the first asked and answered," said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), referring to Clinton's first nominee for attorney general, who withdrew amid a furor after she acknowledged that she had not paid Social Security taxes for a nanny.
Many Democratic senators were concerned about Chavez, a conservative columnist, even before the reports that she once housed and possibly employed an illegal immigrant, Durbin added.
"She had the Patrick Buchanan problem -- when you have a byline several times a week and you're trying to stay interesting and provocative, you have a long paper trail," Durbin said.
Some of Chavez's critics said they were bothered less by the reports that she had housed an illegal immigrant than by the question of whether she had misled the Bush team or even the FBI. It is an axiom in Washington that figures often are brought down not by their initial wrongdoing but by attempts to cover it up.
"I think it was pretty clear that she didn't tell them," Democratic consultant Frank Greer said, referring to Bush's aides. "It was only when the FBI started asking questions that it came out."
Chavez, by her own account, initially failed to alert Bush's team about the potentially explosive issue in her background.
"I didn't volunteer it in our very first conversation," Chavez acknowledged.
Greer linked the charges that Chavez housed and possibly employed an illegal immigrant to what he called her harsh policy positions.
"While I feel some sympathy for her individual acts of kindness, in her professional career she supported the most stringent anti-immigration laws," Greer said. "She is the one who supported a law saying you had to ask about someone's green card, and then she says, 'I don't go around asking for people's green cards.'"
Years ago, it generally took a personal scandal or obvious incompetence to sink a presidential appointee. But now a nominee can be torpedoed simply by allegations of ideological extremism.
Chavez faced both problems: Her critics complained she was an ideologue who would not enforce labor laws, and when the question about the immigrant erupted it finished her off.
"Anybody who has been controversial is going to make enemies," Felzenberg said. "If somebody wants to hurt somebody -- and somebody wanted to hurt Chavez -- they become a target."