Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Eyebrows at the Treasury were raised last Tuesday when Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. named a major Democratic fundraiser to an important advisory role. On the next day, eyebrows were still elevated when Under Secretary Robert K. Steel participated in an event spearheaded by Bill Clinton's two Treasury secretaries.

A longtime Republican office holder now in the Bush administration noted these developments and e-mailed a fellow Republican outside the government: "This leads some to wonder whether this Treasury has become the pre-placed Hillary Clinton team." If she is elected president, it is presumed Sen. Clinton will want her own Treasury team. But she cannot be too unhappy with George W. Bush's current lineup there.

For a president who in 2001 brought faithful fellow Texans with him to Washington and named Republican activists to key posts, Bush's lame-duck Cabinet has virtual non-partisans heading three important departments. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is an intelligence professional and career bureaucrat. Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey spent his career as a prosecutor and judge. But while Gates and Mukasey look like non-partisan civil servants, Paulson comes over as politically androgynous.

In his third try, Bush found the heavyweight Treasury secretary he desired in multi-millionaire investment banker Paulson. The tradeoff is that the former Goldman Sachs CEO does not act or sound much like a conservative Republican to the GOP remnant at the Treasury. "It's not in Hank Paulson's DNA," one official told me. Is he loyal to Bush? "Hank is for Hank," he replied.

Paulson marched to his own drummer last Tuesday by naming Eric Mindich, chairman of Eton Park Capital Management, to head the Asset Managers' Committee of the President's Working Group on Financial Markets. A former Goldman Sachs colleague of Paulson's, Mindich is a top-level Democratic fundraiser. He was in Sen. John Kerry's inner circle for the 2004 presidential campaign and backs Sen. Barack Obama for 2008.

Republicans in the administration were amazed that the White House acquiesced in appointing a Democratic activist to lead a group "to develop best practices" for asset managers. These critics wonder why President Bush did not ask Paulson why he could not name a Republican financier for this position. I posed the question last week, and a Treasury spokesman replied that "we were looking for somebody who is well respected in the industry" to fill what is "not really a political position." By that measure, no Treasury job can be considered political.

That includes Bob Steel, under secretary for domestic finance. Last Wednesday, Steel participated in a round-table discussion on "recent financial market disruptions" at the liberal Brookings Institution. Former Secretary Robert Rubin headed the panel that included two of his Clinton administration associates: his successor as secretary, Lawrence Summers, and former Deputy Secretary Roger Altman.

Steel surely did not feel out of place as a Republican stranger in the Democratic paradise at Brookings, for he is no Republican. Brought to the Treasury by Paulson a year ago, Steel is a retired Goldman Sachs vice chairman who worked there with Rubin and Paulson. Federal Election Commission records show no political contributions by Steel since the 2002 cycle, when he gave exclusively to Democrats (including Sen. Charles Schumer of New York). Steel, who is Board of Trustees chairman of Duke University in Durham, N.C., contributed to the North Carolina Democratic Party and its Senate candidates, Dan Blue and Erskine Bowles.

Although Paulson was a generous Republican contributor and prodigious Bush fundraiser (over $100,000) in the 2004 cycle, his earlier political giving was more varied. He contributed to Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrat Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, the feminist Emily's List and Wall Street's favorite Democrat, Chuck Schumer. Most of the Paulson family's Democratic contributions come from the secretary's wife, Wendy, who has supported Hillary Clinton.

All this was known to Bush in May 2006 when he tapped Paulson as a Treasury chief who would command respect on Wall Street. It should be no surprise then that he is regarded in his own administration as less a true Republican secretary than a transition to the next Democratic Treasury -- a trademark of a lame-duck regime.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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