Some of Bush's Best Friends Are Dems

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Sen. John Breaux looks unlikely to take the job as energy secretary for Bush

On Friday, George W. Bush took another bold step into the reality of his coming administration and had a good fireside lunch with Louisiana senator John Breaux. The new President-elect won't get Breaux as an employee, but he's likely met someone he can work with.

The Democratic Breaux has a Medicare plan in the works that Bush likes, and he's the kind of mild-mannered centrist upon whom Bush's plan to "unite, not divide" depends. But Bush was expected to make Breaux an offer that Breaux can definitely refuse: leave the Senate and be my energy secretary.

As Bush tries to build his administration in a hurry this winter without setting off any partisan alarms, he could use a moderate-looking energy secretary who won't scare the environmentalists, somebody who isn't promising a derrick in every nature preserve. And he'll be looking for Democrats wherever he can fit them in. Breaux fills the bill. But don't expect him to take the job.

First of all, it might be the worst position in politics. From nuclear secrets to oil prices, it's a rattlesnake-herding job in which people only notice you when you screw up. And, like a lot of Cabinet positions, it tends to put a cap on your political career (unless you're defense secretary during the Gulf War or something). If Breaux, who has emerged of late as the media's go-to guy on Senate centrism, is tempted to answer the President-elect's call, he need only look at one person: Bill Richardson.

Regardless of the position, Breaux, like any other Democrat from a state with a Republican governor (who'd name the replacement), isn't likely to go Cabinet for Bush. But look for Bush to try that double whammy — hiring a Democrat for bipartisanship and replacing him with a Republican — on some congressmen in the House, where the stakes per seat are considerably lower.

But having lunch with Breaux at Cabinet time is like putting a minority on your veep short list: It won't happen, but it's good to show you're thinking about it. "John Breaux has got the attitude that I have" about bipartisanship and "he understands that results are a lot more important than rhetoric," Bush told reporters from the fireside, doing most of the talking in his first day out since his Wednesday night victory speech.

"Thanks for having the real good discussions about what we're trying to do," was about all Breaux had to say. And that was all that needed to be said. Bush didn't get an energy secretary — given the strong signals from Breaux about the topic, he probably didn't even ask — but the photo-op symbolism about "getting things done" across party lines came through loud and clear.

In shopping for Democrats, even retired ones like Sam Nunn, to drive that message home to Americans, Bush has a fine line to walk to avoid irking Republicans who have waited the longest eight years of their lives to be running Washington again. And plenty of Democrats will be very wary about being co-opted — William Cohen's experience as a Clinton Republican was not always a happy one.

But every Democrat that Bush can charm along the way will make his four years that much more productive, and darn it if he doesn't seem to think he can pull it off. "I can't tell you how excited I am about getting to Washington," Bush said as he and Breaux grinned at each other. You know what? He looked it.