January 10, 2001
Man with No Mandate
A Pass on a Past
Perhaps most amazing, given the press’ insatiable appetite for personal scandals, were the passes given to Bush on his past.
The press never demanded that Bush disclose his history of drug use despite the obvious suggestion fueled by Bush’s own statements that he had abused drugs at some point in his life.
The press also did not require Bush to account for his whereabouts when he was supposed to be serving in the Alabama Air National Guard, but apparently did not report for duty for 18 months. Officers on base in Alabama at the time said Bush never reported, but the story received faint coverage by most outlets.
Bush also drew only mild criticism of his business dealings throughout the 1980s.
As we reported last summer, Bush’s record as an oil man left many questions about the source of his financing and the deep-pocketed benefactors who lost money to keep Bush’s failed oil companies afloat.
Bush ran into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, too, when he failed to disclose to investors in a timely way stock purchases and sales he made in Harken Energy, a company he helped run.
The Clinton Rules
In contrast, when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his drug use, military service and personal finances became headline stories that dogged his campaign and his entire administration.
Clinton won in spite of these hard-hitting stories while Bush squeaked by without having to fully explain any of these personal mysteries.
Bush benefited, too, from the media's obsession with scandals of the Clinton administration, including the sordid Monica Lewinsky case that resulted in Clinton's impeachment in 1998 by the Republican-controlled House.
Even though many of the so-called "Clinton scandals" were ultimately dismissed for lack of evidence, the effect of eight years of endless investigation into an otherwise popular presidency exhausted Clinton supporters and energized the Republican base.
While Clinton’s behavior created some of the opportunities for these investigations, it cannot be disputed that Clinton was the target of a coalition of enemies.
This coalition started with right-wing Republicans in Arkansas and grew into a well-funded apparatus of the national Republican Party, conservative news outlets, the Christian Right and Richard Mellon Scaife. This ugly campaign is well-documented in Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’s book The Hunting of the President.
In 1999-2000, the anti-Clinton operations morphed into the unrelenting assaults on Gore's integrity. Bush was free to offer his campaign promise to "restore honor and dignity to the White House."
Nevertheless, Bush still lost the national popular vote and only was handed the White House by five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite this tenuous grasp on the presidency, Bush’s transition, headed by Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, is proceeding with a single-minded purpose, almost a swagger, as if Bush had won in a landslide.
His nominees on the whole have not been moderate, but conservative, in some cases very conservative. They reflect the kind of appointments Bush might have made had he trounced Gore by 10 million votes.
One goal of the transition seems to be to distance the country from the electoral realities -- by treating the popular vote as irrelevant -- and bestow on Bush the crown of legitimacy.
Instead of using the transition to heal the country’s election wounds by taking a centrist, cautious and moderate approach to Cabinet-building, Bush is aggressively asserting his mandate through rock-ribbed Republican choices.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page – known for its own hard-right views – hailed Bush's Cabinet as "actually more conservative than the one Ronald Reagan selected." [WSJ, Jan. 8, 2001]
On the environmental front, Bush has appointed two pro-business women to head environmental posts – Gale Norton to the Interior and Christie Whitman to the Environmental Protection Agency.
While Norton wins endorsements as smart and professional and Whitman is viewed as a socially moderate Republican, both women approach environmental issues with sympathies to business interests that overshadow science, health or environmental concerns.
During her appointment press conference, Norton went on record supporting Bush’s plan to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration.
If the environmental community is prepared to fight any environmental battle during Bush’s administration, it will be to protect ANWR from drilling. Yet this proposal remains high on Bush’s agenda.
The Sierra Club and a number of liberal groups oppose Norton’s appointment, as well as the appointment of another polarizing political figure, John Ashcroft, as Attorney General.
In the Senate, Ashcroft opposed many environmental bills and Clinton administration executive orders. Norton championed "wise-use/property rights." Ashcroft also is opposed by black leaders, women and labor groups.
Given the fact that the Senate is evenly split and that the position of Attorney General is arguably the most important domestic policy Cabinet position, this coalition of opposition from the Democratic Party’s base poses a formidable challenge to Ashcroft’s confirmation.
Considering the positions to which they were appointed, the Ashcroft, Norton and Whitman nominations are far from the choices Bush would make if he were building his Cabinet from the center.
Combine that with choices of an ardent supporter of private school vouchers to Education, Rod Paige; a man who once called for the abolition of the Department of Energy to Energy, Spencer Abraham; his aborted choice of a woman who blames sexual harassment lawsuits for turning America into "a nation of crybabies" to Labor, Linda Chavez; and an assortment of corporate-board-room executives to fill other Cabinet posts.
On the whole, the Bush’s choices reflect an ideologically right-wing Cabinet, not one in line with Bush's fuzzy campaign promise to be "a uniter, not a divider."