Sunday, January 14, 2001

Democrats and Republicans in Washington experienced a Florida Flashback this week a 48-hour period in which each side cheered and swooned as victory turned to defeat and defeat to victory.

The drama began with Linda Chavez’s decision to withdraw her name from consideration as George W. Bush’s labor secretary. Mrs. Chavez was Mr. Bush’s most provocative nominee, and most inspired. She drove the left to distraction because she was a Hispanic woman Reaganite who spurned the easy promises of political correctness to challenge the big-government status quo.

In her public career, she battled against quotas and minimum-wage increases that would throw the poor out of work. She championed welfare reform and school choice. Much to the chagrin of her adversaries, she was right about these things brashly and unapologetically so. As a result, she seemed to be Mr. Bush’s kind of conservative tenacious, smart, sassy and unafraid.

But then a bundle of interest groups concocted a scandal. They accused Mrs. Chavez of are you ready? helping a Guatemalan refugee escape an abusive boyfriend.

Years ago, some friends of Mrs. Chavez called her attention to the plight of Marta Piniera (now Mrs. Mercado). Marta was scared. The Chavez family provided shelter. She was broke. Mrs. Chavez and her husband gave her money and support. After she moved out, Miss Piniera dropped by from time to time to show her gratitude by helping with housework. Oh yes: Miss Piniera was an illegal immigrant.

Armed with this information, liberal interest groups mounted a thoroughly bizarre smear campaign. Feminist organizations that ignored Juanita Broaddrick’s account of being raped by Bill Clinton turned around and accused Mrs. Chavez of criminal mischief for protecting a battered woman. Democratic activists who just last November recruited illegal aliens to vote acted as if the government should deport all undocumented residents and jail anybody who treats them kindly.

Team Bush had plenty of ammunition to defend Mrs. Chavez and put her detractors on the defensive. But the president-elect’s men didn’t lift a finger and didn’t return calls from Mrs. Chavez. So she stepped down.

The capitulation stunned Republicans and thrilled Democrats. President Clinton’s former political director, Rahm Emmanuel, described the massacre as “spring training,” hinting that the destruction of Mrs. Chavez might provide a nice warm-up for defenestrating John Ashcroft, the nominee for attorney general. Team Bush caved before elected Democrats even got involved. Outside interest groups and a few hyperventilating reporters did all the heavy lifting.

The whole thing seemed so easy that a few Beltway liberals even entertained thoughts of transforming Mr. Bush from a potential uniter of Washington into an amiable doormat.

But Mr. Bush has learned a thing or two about the importance of resilience and resourcefulness under fire. Not quite two days after Mrs. Chavez declared “No more,” the president-elect named a new nominee: Elaine Chao. Mrs. Chao is every bit as sassy, seasoned, conservative and combative as Linda Chavez. She has taken her lumps in Washington politics for the better part of two decades. At the tender age of 47, she can boast of having served as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, deputy secretary of transportation, director of the Peace Corps, and president and chief executive officer of the United Way.

Like Mr. Bush, she has a Harvard MBA, a quick smile, thick skin and deep dislike of getting pushed around. She is also married to one of the most tenacious and respected partisans in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Like Mrs. Chavez, Mrs. Chao seems likely to challenge the privileges unions now enjoy such as immunity from election laws and Supreme Court edicts. She will try to transform the Labor Department into an advocate for the New Economy, not just a votary of the old. She will oppose racial quotas and fight for workers 88 percent of whom do not belong to unions.

The nomination is Mr. Bush’s way of saying: Don’t Tread On Me. It’s a slap back at the groups that brought Mrs. Chavez to grief and as such, it marks a pivotal moment in the president-elect’s quest to create a more united and collegial Washington.

By pushing Mrs. Chao and defending John Ashcroft, Mr. Bush can put an end to the sort of character assassination pioneered in the Bork hearings and perfected at the expense of Douglas Ginsburg, John Tower, Clarence Thomas and Linda Chavez. It is now obvious that he understands the local rules: You have to be a fighter to be a uniter, because you have to conquer a lot of people who want you to fail. If you want a nice garden, you have to pull the weeds.

Washington isn’t Austin. It’s the dark side of Oz. Mr. Bush understands that nobody in this town takes orders from the Cowardly Lion. So he has tried to give congressional skeptics the two things essential for turning foes into friends: respect and fear.

Tony Snow is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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