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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Stumbling to a second term

For all the political acumen supposedly possessed by his "on message" administration, President Bush is stumbling badly when it comes to getting rid of old cabinet members and hiring new ones.

The fiasco surrounding the appointment of Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, as Homeland Security director is only one example of the President's missteps in his apparent push to stock the cabinet with staunch loyalists.

The Kerik appointment was botched because administration officials failed to vet the nominee well enough in advance. If they had done a thorough job, they might have turned up evidence of Mr. Kerik's illegal nanny, his coziness with individuals linked to organized crime, and his extramarital affairs.

The weak link apparently was relying too much for advice from Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and the nominee's one-time boss. Reading the New York newspapers after the fact, it seems that a lot of people in the Big Apple felt that both Mr. Kerik and Mr. Giuliani threw their weight around the city a little too cavalierly.

Despite his abilities, the free-wheeling Mr. Kerik might have been a bad choice by the President just on matters of style. It has become apparent over the past four years that Mr. Bush does not readily welcome or tolerate dissenting voices or independent thought inside the White House.

There is a danger to a "don't bother me with the facts" attitude, however. Only hearing a chorus of "Yes sir, you're right, Mr. President" can allow a chief executive to become too heavily dependent for policy advice on a few close advisers, like Karl Rove. But Mr. Bush seems eager to take that chance.

Before the Kerik debacle, there was the hatchet job done by Bush insiders on Treasury Secretary John Snow. For more than two weeks, unnamed White House officials allowed themselves to be quoted in the media as saying that Mr. Snow could stay in the cabinet as long as he wants - "provided it is not very long."

Suddenly, after better nominees were considered and rejected, it was announced that Mr. Snow, a former Toledoan, will remain. But why would he want to, especially after having been publicly emasculated by the President's handlers?

To prove that practice does not make perfect in this administration, remember that Mr. Snow was installed at Treasury in February, 2003, after the ouster of Paul O'Neill, who dared to tell the truth publicly about Mr. Bush's ill-advised tax cuts for the wealthy.

Colin Powell is departing the Secretary of State's office in much the same way over differences on foreign policy and the Iraq war, although Mr. Powell seemed to have a higher threshold of pain while sacrificing most of his personal credibility in support of Mr. Bush's adventures abroad. Mr. Powell's successor: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who ignored pre-9/11 warnings. And there is little to say about Mr. Bush's most durable holdover, Donald Rumsfeld, except that he possesses more arrogance and less respect for America's fighting forces than any Secretary of Defense before him.

Other question marks include the shifting of Michael Leavitt from his short tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency to replace Tommy Thompson at Health and Human Services, and the elevation of a Treasury official with no energy experience to head the Energy Department.

Any president is entitled to his own counsel, but Mr. Bush seems determined to cruise through his second term with mostly yes men in the cabinet.

The American people shouldn't be surprised if the President attempts to portray himself as in charge of everything, but, when policies go sour, responsible for nothing.



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