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Published: Tuesday, 12/10/2002

After O'Neill, what?

The resignation of Paul O'Neill as Treasury Secretary - sought and received by the President - raises the inevitable questions: What do his departure, and the pending nomination of Toledo native John Snow as his successor, mean in terms of future administration policy?

The administration may simply have decided that, with the Congress now firmly in Republican hands and raring to go with more tax cuts, privatizing of government functions, and other undertakings, it wants another pitcher on the mound in the economic area. Mr. Snow, a 1962 graduate of the University of Toledo and chairman of CSX Corp., is already warming up.

On the plus side, the administration's systematic approach to dismantling the financial support network of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations is a tribute to Mr. O'Neill's knowledge of the terrain in this key area.

Mr. O'Neill's interests and activities - although sometimes a little quirky - did give some credibility to the “compassionate” part of so-called “compassionate conservatism,” the professed guiding beacon of the Bush Administration's “mission thing.”

On the negative side, Mr. O'Neill had to figure high on the political hit list of the more conservative, “boots on the ground” side of the Bush Administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell tops that list but even in the wake of the November congressional elections success the Bush team probably continues to feel that a Powell resignation would constitute damage below the water line in terms of the administration's domestic and international credibility.

Looking at the Republicans' political hand overall, it is clear that economic performance constitutes its weakness as the country swings however grumpily into the 2004 presidential electoral campaign. There are even some hardened analysts who see the fall's emphasis on grinding the bones of Saddam Hussein and Iraq as a successful attempt to distract the electorate from the various economic disasters that have marked the last year, starting with Enron and proceeding through the current continued faltering of the airline industry.

And the state of the economy, after all, was Mr. O'Neill's area of responsibility. If it is a mess and an area of administration vulnerability, in a sense it is his fault.

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