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A Cabinet Conservative at the Core
ALISON MITCHELL . NY Times . 03 january 2001

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 — With the completion of his cabinet selections today, President-elect George W. Bush has put forward a governing team every bit as ethnically and racially diverse as President Clinton's. At the same time, he has chosen for the most critical domestic policy posts figures who are acceptable to his party's conservative wing.

Through his choices, Mr. Bush has started to answer one of the most tantalizing questions left from his campaign: just what will "compassionate conservatism" be in practice? His advisers maintain that it is a Republican synthesis not seen before on the national stage.

That is not to say that the faces and many of the policies are unfamiliar, or that Mr. Bush is not a true conservative. Linda Chavez, introduced today as labor secretary-designate, is a familiar and polarizing figure from the nation's cultural wars. Ms. Chavez, who was an official in the Reagan administration, opposes affirmative action and has been a steadfast foe of bilingual education, a stance for which she has drawn fire from Hispanic groups.

Nor has Mr. Bush retreated from the conservative policies he rolled out during his campaign. Once again today, he said he wanted to move ahead with a tax cut worth $1.6 trillion over 10 years, a sum that even many Republicans on Capitol Hill have called too large.

But in selecting his cabinet, Mr. Bush has showcased some of the breadth of the conservative movement. His choice for defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, a leading advocate of a missile defense system, is a figure very different from Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri, the religious conservative chosen for attorney general.

Like Mr. Ashcroft, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, chosen to take over the country's vast health and human services portfolio, opposes abortion but, in revamping his state's welfare laws, became known more as innovator than hard-liner.

And with blacks, Hispanics and women, as well as one Democrat, chosen for powerful posts in the new administration, even Democrats are commending Mr. Bush for inclusiveness.

"While not without its controversies, this cabinet is more representative of the country than any Republican presidential cabinet in memory," said Senator Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey. "There appears to have been a genuine effort to achieve real balance."

Take the three nominees introduced today alone: As staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and then director of the Reagan White House's Office of Public Liaison, Ms. Chavez became one of the most prominent Hispanic women in any administration. By naming Norman Y. Mineta to run the Transportation Department, Mr. Bush not only made good on his pledge to name a Democrat to the cabinet but also gave a high-ranking post to an Asian-American. And Spencer Abraham, the recently defeated senator from Michigan, who was chosen for energy secretary, has Lebanese roots.

"President-elect Bush, like Governor Bush in Texas, is often misunderstood by some because he's a conservative, and by others because he's inclusive," said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist who advised the Bush campaign. "And he's a unique and rare combination of both that you rarely see in a Republican political figure, which is a very significant part of his appeal."

Few would dispute that there is a conservative cast to Mr. Bush's cabinet, perhaps more than might have been expected given his talk of ending the bruising partisanship in Washington and reaching out to Democrats after the bitter, extended presidential election.

Republicans say that while Mr. Bush wants to reach across party lines when he can, he never intended to give up his strongly held positions.

"If anyone out there was observing a Bush-Cheney team thinking they would come up with an administration that didn't share their philosophy about government, I don't think they were very well grounded," said Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. "That wasn't going to happen."

Still, Mr. Bush has also named people with appeal to the party's moderate wing, including Christie Whitman to oversee environmental policy. His selection for treasury secretary, Paul H. O'Neill, was often at odds with conservatives when he served in the Office of Management and Budget under President Gerald R. Ford, and is not known as a Reaganesque supply-sider.

And even Mr. Bush's more conservative nominees may prove less doctrinaire than some expect. His choice for interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, a staunch advocate of property rights, was a protégée of James G. Watt, who sparred with environmental groups as a Reagan interior secretary, and she is likely to face many questions from Democrats at her confirmation hearing. Yet some Democrats who knew her when was the attorney general of Colorado say she can work across partisan barriers and is open to compromises.

Mr. Thompson, who as Wisconsin governor put in place a tough welfare-to-work law, accompanied it with a costly expansion of services to needy workers. And though Ms. Chavez has been at odds with Hispanic organizations because of her views on affirmative action and bilingual education, she once resigned as head of a group that wanted to make English the nation's official language, over a memorandum she thought showed bias against Hispanics.

Still, it is far from clear that Mr. Bush will be able to make any inroads with minorities who voted overwhelmingly for Vice President Al Gore. Civil rights leaders, saying blacks were disenfranchised in Florida, are calling for demonstrations before the inauguration. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson has signaled that civil rights groups will challenge Democrats to oppose Mr. Ashcroft's nomination.

Mr. Ashcroft is expected to face the fiercest confirmation battle of all, at hearings that will explore matters including his successful fight to defeat the federal judicial nomination of Ronnie White, the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court. In addition, women's groups are pointing to his unyielding opposition to abortion.

The Ashcroft hearings will be held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked if the nominee would be confirmed, one member, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, said: "A lot will be determined in the hearings. Will Senator Ashcroft enforce the law in areas that he is ideologically totally opposed to? The laws like on choice and gun control? If he doesn't thoroughly convince people, then he could have trouble."

With his cabinet choices complete, Mr. Bush will now turn his attention to policy, and is vowing to move boldly ahead with the agenda on which he campaigned instead of scaling back on the most contentious proposals because of the closely decided election.

The extent to which his proposals will succeed in a Congress that itself is so closely divided is uncertain. But his advisers say that the time to compromise will come later and that he would only weaken himself if he started retrenching now.

"You have to try to accomplish as much of the agenda on which you campaigned as you can," said Ed Gillespie, a Republican strategist who was a Bush campaign aide. "The fact is that people in this incoming administration are realists, and they will determine how much of that agenda is achievable given the margins in Congress. But you don't know how much is achievable until you try it all."