Confirmation Bear Traps

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It is a sacred Washington ritual, a quadrennial attempt at human sacrifice to appease the gods of compromise. At the dawn of each Administration, the President anoints his team, and the confirmation games begin. The interest groups on left and right begin to stir and sniff; the oppo research folders get fattened up for the fight; Senators who will sit in judgment begin voicing "concerns" or "questions" about this candidate's qualifications or that one's paper trail. But almost never--only nine times in Senate history--has a Cabinet nominee been voted down. About the same number pulled out rather than suffer the strip search, or the President withdrew their name, as Clinton did with Zoe Baird when the Attorney General-designate disclosed her infamous nanny- tax problem. In general, confirmation hearings serve as a kind of overture to the First Act of a new President, a preview of all the themes and characters that will share the stage and shape the combat for the next four years. Let the trumpets blare.

By the time George W. Bush finished his shopping last week, he had found a little something for everyone, but especially himself. The diverse Cabinet was designed to build political capital for the fights that lie ahead. By picking both insiders and outsiders, pragmatists and purists, Bush was not only paying off past favors to constituencies but also, he hopes, building goodwill for the future. If he needs to ignore Christian Conservatives when it comes time to wink at China's persecution of Christians, his selection of archconservative former Senator John Ashcroft for Attorney General will help the medicine go down. Business developers got Gale Norton, the Interior nominee known for her eagerness to open wilderness areas to industry. Corporate America, meet Mr. Paul O'Neill, lately of Alcoa. Moderate suburbanites got Christine Todd Whitman, the moderate, suburban New Jersey Governor who will run the Environmental Protection Agency. If Labor nominee Linda Chavez, Reagan's civil rights commissioner and battle-hardened veteran of the culture wars, continues her attacks on affirmative action once in office, Bush can take cover behind the fact that his Cabinet includes fewer white men than any Republican team in history. "Anywhere someone may have a problem, there's a counter to it. It's hard to criticize as a whole," says campaign media strategist Mark McKinnon. "The adults are back in town."

At least that's the way it's supposed to work. But Cabinets aren't confirmed en masse, and Washington has been reshaped by the growth of single-issue constituencies over the past many years. This all but guarantees that Cabinet confirmation hearings become policy shootouts. If one of the more vulnerable targets gets in real trouble and Bush has to ride to the rescue, he may have to spend more political capital defending his picks than he has got by making such wide use of the G.O.P. bench. Worst of all, one of these picks may be a constant draw on his account. Just as James Watt or Jocelyn Elders became poster children for entire Administrations, Ashcroft or Chavez or Norton--the three candidates whose rhetoric and records Democrats consider most extreme--may appear on every Democratic fund-raising letter between now and the 2002 election.

Which has, of course, already begun. Bush is proving to be a uniter, not a divider, all right. But nobody realized that it was Democrats he would be uniting--environmentalists, pro-choice advocates, labor unions and civil rights groups, all of which were huddling together last Friday to pick their targets and plan their attacks. "This kind of outrage in breadth and depth and diversity--I can't remember anything like it," said Hilary Shelton, director of the N.A.A.C.P.'s Washington bureau. But in private, Senate Democrats were clear that, absent some shocking new smoking gun, they weren't likely to actually reject Ashcroft, Chavez or Norton. In a Senate divided evenly between the parties, only a simple majority is required for confirmation, meaning that Democrats would have to achieve astonishing unity (and find one Republican defector) to vote down one of the nominees.

The Democrats' strategy is not risk-free; if they fight hard and lose, they might end up empowering the new President. And with three, possibly four, targets, "they're going to spread themselves too thin," predicts Clint Bolick, a Chavez ally who is head of a conservative legal-advocacy group called the Institute for Justice. "They're not going to take a single scalp because they're going to go after too many."

But Republicans know that some of the nominations might prove costly. Bush's choice of Chavez, with her record of union bashing, means that "we have just blown up whatever inroads we had made with the Teamsters," says a seasoned G.O.P. strategist. Teamsters leader James Hoffa has been flirting with bolting from the Democratic Party and seemed receptive to g.o.p. stroking, but Chavez is a bitter pill for even him to swallow. And thanks to Norton, a longtime advocate for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the strategist says, "we are also now undone with suburban women in the Midwest and California who care about the environment." Other Bush allies complain that by picking Ashcroft, a candidate to lead the Justice Department who offends the African-American community's sense of justice, Bush handed the other side a sure weapon to increase black turnout in 2002 and 2004.

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