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Q&A with David Lewis

Bush agenda hinges on key appointments

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- The transformation of the Bush administration was quickly under way after the Nov. 2 presidential election. With Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft among several Cabinet officials announcing their resignations, President Bush must proceed swiftly with a major reorganization of his key personnel heading into his second term, according to Princeton presidential scholar David Lewis.

Lewis recently spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about the major issues surrounding Bush's transition into his next four years in the White House, including possible Supreme Court nominations and how Bush's slim but clear victory over John Kerry will affect the nation's fractious political landscape.

David Lewis in his office

David Lewis

Lewis, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs, is the author of ''Presidents and the Politics of Agency Design'' (Stanford University Press, 2003). His research focuses on the presidency, executive branch politics and public administration. Lewis joined the Princeton faculty in 2002.

Is the movement we're seeing in Bush's Cabinet typical of what happens after a president is re-elected?

Traditionally you see lots of turnover in second terms, for two reasons. One is that the president feels freer after the election to accept people's resignations. During the election presidents feel constrained because they worry about how personnel moves will be interpreted in the context of the campaign. Also, people in these top positions often have taken financial hits to go into government service, and after the election is a good time for them to go back to the private sector. In addition to Cabinet positions, there will also be turnover in a number of lesser known positions as the Bush administration seeks to reward faithful campaign supporters.

Bush needs to reorder his Cabinet and top appointments quickly and move forward. If he delays, this could hinder his ability to focus on his legislative and administrative agenda.

What is Bush's motivation in making these key personnel decisions? Will his Cabinet selections be more conservative?

I don't think his motivation is to necessarily make more conservative appointments. Now he does not need to take his re-election into account when making personnel decisions. Remember, appointments are not always given to the most competent and most loyal. They are often given to people to satisfy an interest group, pay off a political debt or another reason. If the president is not getting along with an appointee or an appointee needs to be removed because he or she is not doing a good job, the president is now freer to ask that person to leave.

His nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is an interesting choice. I think he was seen as somewhat of a moderate, but he's been tainted by his role in the handling of Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees -- having been quoted as saying the Geneva Conventions are ''quaint.'' But this will be less rancorous than some other choices Bush could have made.

With his personnel appointments, Bush also has an opportunity to lay the groundwork for Republican policy influence in the federal government for a long time. He can develop a farm team of young Republicans who can go on and serve in higher positions in the executive branch or become part of the pool from which the party can recruit candidates. One of the difficulties the Clinton administration had was filling the administration with experienced, qualified Democrats since Republicans had been in office for so long and they were a bit wary of Carter Democrats. Reagan was extremely successful cultivating a group of young Republicans who rose through the ranks of the administration. Bush has shown a similar pattern.

Both sides have talked about the need to heal the nation's political wounds following this election -- is that possible?

In order to unify the country, Bush must prioritize issues on his legislative agenda where he and Democrats have common ground. He needs not only to prioritize these issues but also work constructively with Democrats on them and give them a share of the credit when the legislation is enacted. Some areas where he could do this are intelligence reform, immigration reform, fixing Social Security and perhaps reforming the tax code.

Do you expect to see progress in that direction in Bush's second term?

There are two camps in the Republican Party, generally. The first is the establishment Republican Party. What they want is for Bush to consolidate in the second term -- meaning to pick issues on which he can make some progress, work with Democrats and build a legacy. The other camp -- the evangelicals, the business manufacturers, people who felt they worked hard to get him elected -- will want a more conservative agenda. So far, the indications are that he's moving in the former direction as opposed to the latter.

Bush has made a big issue of Social Security reform and tax reform. He's talked about Social Security reform in a way that suggests some sort of bipartisan commission. He didn't talk about making tax cuts permanent. Also, the administration has been talking about immigration reform, which is an issue that would have been easy to drop if they were going to pursue a more conservative agenda. If those are really his agenda items for the second term, that speaks to unifying rather than dividing.

The Republicans can claim a mandate in the sense that they did win a clear national vote and they did pick up seats in both the House and Senate. That's impressive, but 51 percent (Bush) to 48 percent (Kerry) is not an overwhelming mandate.

In the current political climate, how difficult will it be for Bush to get judicial nominees confirmed, particularly to the Supreme Court?

Judicial nominations are the biggest issue in the second term in terms of whether the polarized atmosphere continues. Judicial appointments were extremely contentious during Bush's first term. Senate Democrats still have a large enough minority to filibuster or threaten to filibuster nominations they consider to be obnoxious. If he does not choose his nominees to the Supreme Court carefully, this could lead to further acrimony between the parties and the conflicts could perhaps spill over to other parts of his legislative agenda.

The need to get confirmed usually prevents nominees from being to the right or to the left. There are exceptions -- Robert Bork, for example, was not approved after being nominated by Reagan. Usually presidents take into account what they expect to happen in the Senate before they make a nomination, unless they want to make a nomination as part of a political fight. I don't expect that to happen this time because Bush is not trying to get re-elected and get a campaign issue.

It is difficult in this environment to nominate any judges because they'll be scrutinized so carefully. There used to be a lot more deference to the executive branch in the nomination and confirmation of judges. Current or former U.S. senators make attractive Supreme Court appointments because senators have a harder time opposing one of their former colleagues.

Earlier you mentioned Bush's legacy. How do you think history will regard his first term, and what will be the defining issues of his second term?

It is going to depend on what Iraq looks like 10 years down the road and how much terrorism there is 10 or 15 years down the road. To some extent, he cares about things like Social Security, which everybody recognizes is going to be a problem in the future. If he tackles a problem that you don't get much political credit for now, that's a legacy issue, too. Tax reform is the same way. Those are important legislative achievements, but by and large it's the war on terror and Iraq. I don't think he anticipated that when he came into the presidency, but he's now stuck with it.