Focus on the Practical

Those who followed President-elect George W. Bush’s campaign will spot few surprises in his Cabinet selections. He promised diversity, and he has included among his choices so far two women, two African Americans and a Latino. He took a generally center-right stance on most issues, and with one or two exceptions the department heads he has nominated appear to fall within the broad center-right spectrum. He said he would assign a high priority to experience and managerial skills, and the resumes of his nominees are impressive in these areas.

Americans will learn much more about the proposed Cabinet in the weeks ahead, as Senate confirmation hearings scrutinize the nominees’ records and assess their policy inclinations. Some, like John Ashcroft, tapped for attorney general, and Gail Norton, named to head the Interior Department, merit especially tough questioning. Bush’s first words on Norton, when he introduced her Friday, were “our country needs a leader who will respect the land and honor our national commitment to conservation.” Certainly it does, and many will wonder whether Norton’s lax attitude toward compliance with environmental laws as Colorado’s attorney general means she cannot be counted on to properly safeguard the nation’s natural heritage.

Bush turned to a fellow Texan, Houston schools Supt. Roderick Paige, to head the Education Department. Paige has impressed with his reading reforms and skill in managing a diverse school system and was wooed by Los Angeles last year for the superintendent’s post. Bush has made education improvement a high priority and Paige has a solid record.

For the Health and Human Services Department Bush named Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, not least on the strength of his welfare reforms, which have become something of a model for other states. Health and Human Services is a sprawling challenge, among other things overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. It is a department in which tugs of war between compassion and conservatism are common, and therefore it’s a frequent target of congressional criticism. Thompson, the nation’s longest-serving Republican governor, will have his political and administrative skills put to the test.


So will Donald Rumsfeld, the once and future secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld has rightly noted, “We are in a new national security environment,” one in which defenses against information warfare, terrorism and threats to the nation’s space satellites must be constantly strengthened. Rumsfeld is reassuringly strong on modernizing the military to deal with post-Cold War threats. His big challenge will be in overcoming resistance to change within the military and in Congress. He is also, less reassuringly, a strong proponent of a full-scale national missile defense system, an idea fraught with technological and political problems.

Bush, tacitly acknowledging his own deficiencies in national security, says he will rely heavily for guidance on Rumsfeld, secretary of State nominee Colin Powell and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney. Paul H. O’Neill, Bush’s pick as Treasury secretary, similarly brings sound experience in the public and private sectors to a key post and deserves Bush’s trust. Overall, Bush’s Cabinet choices appear to signal an administration that is likely to be more pragmatic than ideological, with department heads--Rumsfeld and Paige could be exceptions--whose policies are likely to tilt toward caution rather than innovation. Time will soon tell.