Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Vitriol in Cabinet Vetting ; Nomination Process Becomes More Pointed in an Era of High-Speed Opposition Research

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Vitriol in Cabinet Vetting ; Nomination Process Becomes More Pointed in an Era of High-Speed Opposition Research

Article excerpt

No one ever promised George W. Bush a lengthy honeymoon, but as confirmation hearings accelerate on the president-elect's Cabinet, the question may be:

Does he get one at all?

The era of bipartisanship, alive and well last week, is already vanishing as tempers and temperatures rise.

From the beginning, the man who called himself a "uniter" and talked up his ability to work with Democrats and Republicans in Austin, Texas, was told that Washington is a different world. If he didn't believe it then, he may now.

Though Mr. Bush's nominee for Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, begins today what is expected to be an easy confirmation, the quick exit of Linda Chavez as secretary of Labor has hardened partisan feelings - and may be a precursor of what's to come on other cabinet vetting.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected, given the close election and the even split in Congress. But more fundamental changes are also at work that make honeymoons in Washington far from guaranteed. As a result, even cabinet confirmations, once relatively benign procedures, have become a stage for epic battles.

"The honeymoon-period era lasted up through Bush I," says David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents.

But since then, the political landscape has changed significantly. For one thing, the rise of third-party candidates has prevented recent presidential winners from securing mandates. There's also been an increase of partisanship on Capitol Hill.

Bickering across party lines is of course not new in Washington, but the extent of that squabbling has grown. Political disagreements used to emerge in policy debates once an administration was on its feet. Now they have moved front and center into the cabinet-confirmation process.

And the hardening of the process, which began with the elder Bush's failure to get John Tower confirmed as Defense secretary in 1989, and firmed up with President Clinton's Cabinet struggles in 1993, seems to be solidifying with Bush in 2001.

In an era of super-fast Internet search engines, massive video archives, and Lexis-Nexis - a searchable record of every major news publication - anything a person wrote or said on TV in the past decade can be pulled up in moments and fed to a growing media.

In 1960, there were about 1,000 reporters with Capitol Hill credentials. Today there are more than 4,000. The 24-hour cable news networks and talk-radio stations create "an almost carnivorous demand for political news," notes G. Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Also, interest groups barrage elected officials and the media with information about a nominee. "I can generate 5,000 to 10,000 calls tomorrow" to Congress about a bill or a nominee, boasts David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. …

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