So Far, No Cabinet Calamities

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Cabinet-bound: Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson and New Jersey's Christie Whitman

To the Republican right, making a connection between Christine Todd Whitman's stance on abortion and her fitness to run the Environmental Protection Agency would probably be more bother than it's worth.

That's why the battle-scarred, perennial-bridesmaid governor of New Jersey is finally going to be called up to the show by George W. Bush, as soon as Friday: To get a pro-choice female face in a safe place, where she won't start an abortion debate in the middle of his high-speed transition. "Good men can disagree," he likes to say, but he'd really rather not talk about it.

But Bush has still got to feed the social-conservative monkey.

Enter Friday's other picks. Bush announced in the morning that John Ashcroft, the Missouri senator who lost in November at the hands of Mel Carnahan's ghost, will be attorney general. Ashcroft is a staunch and pious down-the-line social conservative whom Democrats really seem to despise — he beats out Montana governor Marc Racicot, whom the right didn't like, and Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, a former FBI man whom they loved but is back among the also-rans for some reason.

Bush is also expected to announce the appointment of Virginia governor James Gilmore to head up the RNC. Gilmore, a good soldier, a great fund-raiser and a tax-cutting conservative to boot, is meant to further assuage GOP righties who have found Bush's appointments a little unsettling thus far: The party machinery is in reliable hands. (Gilmore will stay as governor but step down as chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, which means vice-chairman Tom Ridge may finally get a promotion after all.)

But one post Bush is no longer expected to fill with the expected name is the Department of Defense, where the New York Times reports that George W. was less than overwhelmed after sitting down with his vice-president's choice, former Indiana senator Dan Coats. Coats, who led the charge against gays in the military in 1993, is a favorite of the far-right crowd, but may not be the wonk Bush is looking for. And so Paul Wolfowitz, who did Asia-expert duties for Reagan and tutor duties for W. during the campaign, is back in the running.

Skirting the abortion issue

Ridge, the pro-choice, white, male Pennsylvania governor, is not. ("They apparently believe that because of one issue, I am not entitled to hold any post," Ridge said after his reported scratching for Defense. Hint, hint. Some are blaming Ridge's military voting record during his time in Congress, to which Ridge had this to say: "Just because it went boom and cost a lot of money doesn't mean I voted for it.")

Whitman wanted U.N. ambassador (that's reportedly George Mitchell's to refuse) but will get stuck with EPA; Ridge, overqualified for the shelf jobs, will probably just get stuck. All because Bush's greatest fear is touching off an abortion distraction — the Supreme Court aspect alone is staggering — that he deems completely irrelevant to his near-term goals.

Safer bets?

The Bible-thumping crowd will let Bush have Whitman — she's pro-business, New Jersey isn't nearly as polluted as it used to be, and baby-killing isn't in the job description. And besides, Health and Human Services looks to be in safe hands of Tommy Thompson.

Thompson is the original conservative-pragmatist hero, a long-running Wisconsin governor who dazzles on welfare reform and won't budge on his pro-life position. This is the guy who started the fashion that allowed a bipartisan-minded GOP governor to dodge the stench of Tom DeLay, and Bush owes him. Even liberals can't help but like him a little bit, and the religious right knows the abortion issue won't get any worse for them with him in charge. At Thompson's request, the announcement will be made after the holidays, but it looks like a lock.

Education will be a delicate choice. First, because it'll be the window into the issue that Bush says is his first love. Next, because hard-core conservatives don't even want an Education Department. And then there's the prayer-in-schools thing. And the v-word. Bush may let this one simmer awhile.

Progress report

So for all the Powells and the Rices and the laid-back Bush crew, the angriest half of the Republican party does appear to be getting what it wants worst: social conservatives at key social-policy posts like AG and HHS. And if Bush wants to keep Americans and the media focused on other things — education, Medicare, tax cuts, the agenda of the possible — he'll have to keep Roe v. Wade on the back burner, and the best way to do that is to keep the Bible-thumpers happy.

As for the rest of the country, they get the diversity thing. Something for everybody — women, blacks, Hispanics and moderates to go with the old white gentleman conservatives (Ashcroft may be the first to break that mold, but AG isn't worth a fight for the left). Colin Powell alone is thought to be able to please 14 different interest groups without saying a word.

If it finds a spot for Ridge (white male pro-choice liberal Republicans still eat at a different table) the Bush administration will be a pretty wide variety of professionals, all more intent on doing their respective jobs than messing around with Roe v. Wade and the like. As for diversity of color: If blacks are willing to look at Colin Powell and Condi Rice as viable political alternatives to Jesse Jackson (and if Bush eventually tips his hat to the Florida election problems), Bush may yet make friends there too. Though it'll be hard with Clarence Thomas sitting in the stands.

So assuming Thompson and Whitman are next, it would appear that Bush has soothed all beasts thus far by making his diversity acceptable to his right flank. Right? But ah, the left — there are scattered reports that Senate Democrats will subject Whitman to a hot roasting over her gross ham-handedness with racial profiling in New Jersey. We might even get to see the picture of her frisking the innocent black motorist — and grinning.

That's the other distraction Bush really doesn't need.