On his first trip to Washington after the Supreme Court awarded him the presidency in 2000, George W. Bush announced, “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier–just as long as I’m the dictator.” With his attempt at a joke, the President revealed everything about his vision of an ideal White House working environment. This is not a chief executive who likes dissent–from outside his Administration or from within. And as Bush reshapes his Cabinet, he is purging even the most tepid of free thinkers.
Gone soon will be Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had the annoying habit of pointing out that the United States actually needed allies. Exiting as well is United Nations ambassador John Danforth, who tried with little success during his brief tenure to get the Administration to mend fences with that international body. On the domestic front, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, whose frustration with the Administration’s refusal to fund needed antiterrorism initiatives was always a little too evident, is on the way out. So, too, is Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who never got on board with the Administration’s opposition to most forms of stem-cell research and who bluntly acknowledges that he wishes he had been given the authority to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and to do more to protect the nation’s food supply.
As Bush announces his replacements, ideology and personal loyalty are winning out at every turn over ideas and the historic notion that a Cabinet ought to be made up of the best and the brightest. Powell’s proposed replacement, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, suffers from none of the current secretary’s angst over the increasing isolation of the United States. Ridge’s replacement, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, proved his absolute loyalty by hitting the campaign trail as the most over-the-top apologist for the Administration’s inept, penny-pinching response to the cry of cities and port authorities for adequate federal funding of needed antiterror initiatives. Even where nominees are more personally appealing than their predecessors, they are also less likely to question the President. White House domestic policy adviser Margaret Spellings, who is set to take over from Rod Paige at the Education Department, is less bombastic than Paige but is also more invested in maintaining the failed No Child Left Behind experiment, which she helped draft. White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales may not be as wild-eyed as outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft, but he is arguably more closely linked to the Administration’s worst abuses of basic liberties and international humanitarian standards.
The President’s attempt to build a no-questions-asked Cabinet makes America even more vulnerable to policy missteps and misdeeds. Democrats in the Senate have a responsibility to do more than simply rubber-stamp his nominees. Too often, members of the opposition party who serve on Senate committees seek to display bipartisanship in reviewing Cabinet selections, in part because they want to be able to work with new department heads. But the overall pattern of Bush’s selections suggests a lockstep approach that renders prospects for compromise and collegiality even less likely than in his first term. Senate Democrats, and responsible Republicans, must go out of their way to grill these Cabinet nominees. Even if they cannot muster the votes to block particular appointments, they must not only hold them accountable for past actions but also demand evidence that those nominees will respect and respond to Congressional oversight. Bush should not be allowed to quietly replace America’s Cabinet form of government with an echo chamber.