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Published: 1/5/2001

A conservative cabinet

When it came to building his 14-member cabinet, President-elect George Bush quickly hammered together some surprising diversity in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender considerations: four women, two blacks, two Latinos, one Asian-American, and one Arab-American among them. But, with few exceptions, Mr. Bush has assembled a cast of advisers with philosophical inclinations that span only part of the political spectrum: conservative to ultra-conservative.

Notwithstanding Colin Powell, the Secretary of State-designate, who is viewed with faint skepticism as having been somewhat of a reluctant warrior in his military days, the right-wingers love most of these guys.

For Defense, there's old pro Donald Rumsfeld, from the Ford administration, having reincarnated himself as an advocate for a national missile defense system - still Star Wars after all these years and still a conservative icon.

At Justice, John Ashcroft - assuming he survives the confirmation process - is the religious right's candidate to carry the battle against affirmative action and abortion. (And, since he was defeated for the Senate in his home state of Missouri, largely on the strength of a big turnout of black voters, he's available.) At Interior, Gale Norton would represent the interests of developers, western ranchers, and loggers. Linda Chavez, once the highest-ranking woman in the Reagan administration, would bring her anti-affirmative action perspective to the Labor Department.

As a group, the cabinet nominees are said to be strong in bureaucratic or business experience, but there are some real head-scratchers, with the choice for Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, Michigan's outgoing U.S. senator, as a case in point.

Mr. Abraham was defeated by U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow after a single lackluster Senate term in which he concentrated on immigration and computer issues. Now he is nominated to run the Energy Department, an agency he once sponsored legislation to abolish.

According to Mr. Bush, he will be a key adviser in helping to develop “a comprehensive energy policy.” With this country facing an economic judgment day as a result of a continued dependence on foreign oil, and with natural gas prices that have quadrupled over the past year, that's an important job. As a senator from an auto-producing state, Mr. Abraham has consistently worked to thwart even small increases in federal fuel-economy standards for motor vehicles.

Will he surprise no one and parrot Mr. Bush's oft-stated recommendation to drill in the most pristine portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? A six-month supply of oil to fuel all those thirsty sport utility vehicles hardly qualifies as a satisfactory answer for our energy problems.

Mr. Abraham's chief qualification seems to be his record as an ideological soldier, first as a conservative wunderkind at Harvard, then as chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle, and most recently as an unquestioning vote for the Republican agenda in the Senate. Plus, like Mr. Ashcroft, he needed a job. No one's questioning Mr. Abraham's overall intelligence, but why should we have a novice in the field heading the Energy Department?

Ironically, Mr. Bush's lone Democratic cabinet choice, Norman Mineta, would offer greater personal expertise than many of the others as Transportation secretary. Mr. Mineta, a late appointee as Commerce secretary under President Clinton, served 22 years in the House, where he chaired the Committee on Public Works and Transportation and became an expert on airline safety. He headed the National Civil Aviation Review commission, which in 1997 warned of the gridlock that is rapidly engulfing the nation's skies, while discomfiting and endangering air travelers.

Mr. Mineta knows transportation thoroughly and can be counted on, as he said, to remember that highways, traffic congestion, and aviation and highway safety aren't Republican or Democratic issues.

As for the others in the Bush cabinet, we'll have to see what they do, not what they say.



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