A schism between President-elect George W. Bush and the Republican right was averted yesterday when Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana said he had turned down the position of attorney general.
Until that announcement late yesterday, conservatives sought to derail what they had been led to believe would be the appointment of Mr. Racicot to the job that they want to go to Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, their No. 1 choice, or to Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, their second pick.
Earlier yesterday, conservatives conveyed to Mr. Bush’s top advisers their deep disappointment over the president-elect’s choices for several Cabinet posts, warning against the appointment of Mr. Racicot in particular.
Mr. Racicot, who was constitutionally limited to serving two terms as governor of his state and did not seek re-election this year, built a moderately conservative record as governor. He is a close friend of Mr. Bush, and demonstrated his loyalty as a high-profile spokesman during the Florida vote recount.
As governor, Mr. Racicot cut spending and produced a $22 million surplus, which he returned to taxpayers in the form of a 7 percent income-tax rebate. He reformed state workmen’s compensation laws and helped produce Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature in 1994. Supporters note that his 1995 welfare reform plan produced sharp drops in the welfare rolls in 1996.
Among others about whom conservatives registered their skepticism are Alcoa Chairman Paul O’Neill, named yesterday as Treasury secretary; former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, thought to be under consideration for education secretary; and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, said to be the leading candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Even the behind-the-scenes promise to conservatives by Bush advisers that Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a strong conservative, would be nominated for secretary of health and human services did not quell the growing talk of unhappiness with Mr. Bush.
“I’m just at a point of time in life and with my family that I’m not sure that that would be in our best interest,” Mr. Racicot told the Associated Press. He said he told Mr. Bush, “I think that I should withdraw my name from consideration.”
Until Mr. Racicot took himself out of the running, momentum was building for conservatives to openly break with Mr. Bush.
“If Bush doesn’t name movement conservatives to the next four Cabinet jobs, his administration is going to be in trouble with his base,” a prominent Republican and former White House official told The Washington Times on Tuesday. Until now, most conservative Republicans had declined to express even in private any doubts about Mr. Bush.
“Some of us were thinking maybe it’s time to go down to Florida and demand a recount,” said a Republican who heads a national anti-regulation group. However, reconsidering his bitter jest, he quickly added: “I say let’s wait and see whom Bush appoints to the second-tier jobs in the departments and agencies, because those jobs also are crucial.”
Conservatives further expressed consternation about the delay in naming former Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana as secretary of defense, giving time for Democrats and other liberals to mount what some conservatives see as “a press campaign to smear” him as being politically incorrect, sexist, homophobic and guilty of other political sins.
Although a top Bush aide has privately assured conservatives that Mr. Bush realizes the importance of his conservative base and will not alienate them, certain critics nevertheless have said they fear that conservatives will be shut out of leadership positions in various departments and agencies.
Conservatives say their greatest complaint against Mr. O’Neill is that he appears to be the “consummate pragmatist” and that to the extent he has a record at all it is of supporting taxes on gasoline and other energy sources.
“He’s bright and accomplished and all that, but the risk [is that] he has always stated a preference for energy taxes,” said Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Conservatives worry over whether he will implement the O’Neill agenda or the Bush agenda. The last thing we want to see is a replay of the energy tax fiasco.”
The heaviest blow to conservative dreams and wishes, however, would have been the elimination of consideration of Mr. Keating who served in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan for attorney general.
“Recognizing the intensely personal nature of a president’s choice for attorney general, most conservatives nevertheless are hoping that Bush will select Keating, because he is far more conservative overall than is Governor Racicot and because he is intimately familiar with the workings of the Justice Department, and with the political realities of Washington,” says American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.
Says another Republican with close ties to the incoming Bush administration: “Racicot vetoed paycheck protection [legislation to bar labor unions from using compulsory dues for political purposes without the explicit permission of each union member]. He told the Montana legislature he would veto school choice legislation.
“Even the teachers unions endorsed his re-election,” he said, noting that Mr. Racicot also had proposed a 4 percent sales tax referendum that the voters defeated by a ratio of 3-1.
One of the reasons for his unpopularity among harder-line conservatives stems from his opposition to a 1998 referendum requiring a popular vote for tax increases. When it passed, he successfully argued against it in the Montana Supreme Court.
Mr. Kean, who was popular with some conservatives 20 years ago for appearing to challenge the educational establishment in his state, came to be regarded as “basically an Eastern liberal on most matters,” a conservative leader with close ties to the incoming Bush administration said yesterday.
Mrs. Whitman is opposed by social conservatives who believe her pro-choice positions make her better suited to be the U.S. trade representative than the EPA administrator.
“Population control groups and the environmental establishment are essentially the same group,” said Mr. Smith. “The EPA is the most powerful economic policy job in Washington because regulation is the preferred tool of government intervention today. [Mrs.] Whitman is part of the Northeast liberal establishment Republicans and Democrats who go with the ‘green tide’ of environmental and regulation zealots.”
Conservatives, who rallied around Mr. Bush to defend him against Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primaries last year, had not been united so early behind a Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan.
Even in private, few expressed misgivings about Mr. Bush’s commitment to conservative principles and to carrying out his campaign pledges. But over the last few days, conservative supporters of Mr. Bush had begun to express their doubts.
Some say they never trusted Mr. Bush from the beginning. “Conservatives can’t be too upset about nonconservative choices since Bush didn’t promise conservative choices for his administration in the first place,” says conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center. “He said no litmus test on abortion. And on education, he promised new federal spending programs.”