Character counts more than promises

Posted: Aug 01, 2000 12:00 AM
Campaigns are run on issues and what candidates have to say about them is important. But campaign promises and party platforms are not binding. Indeed, it is not uncommon for presidents to do exactly the opposite of what they said they would do during the campaign. Thus, ultimately, while campaign positions and promises give us important information as to a presidential candidate's likely actions in office, they are, at best, a rough guide, not a specific road map. Much more important is the personnel decisions a president makes. When he picks people of stature with clearly defined philosophies and long records of action for key positions, we learn far more about an administration's future direction. That is because presidents necessarily must delegate most of their policies for implementation. The wrong person in the wrong job can very easily torpedo an administration's entire agenda. In short, personnel is policy. Consider taxation. Bush has put forward a detailed tax proposal that tells us much about his philosophy. But before that plan is ever sent to Congress for action, should he be elected, it is going to be vetted by his Treasury secretary, who in turn will consult the assistant secretary for tax policy. If I know who those two people will be, I will know far more about what the Bush administration's tax policy will be than if I simply read his campaign documents. This is not to imply that Bush is insincere about his tax plan. It is just that the real world of governing and legislating is far, far different than the campaign trail. Forces and pressures are quickly brought to bear on new presidents in ways that are hard to explain. Unless a president has brought with him articulate and determined advisers to help him carry through his plans, they, too, easily founder on the rocks of inertia. It is not just the right people at Treasury who are necessary for a president's tax plan to become law, it will also require the right people at related agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers and other members of the White House staff. With so many fingers in the pie of any major administration initiative -- whether it be taxation, health policy, foreign policy or other issue area -- there are always going to be people who, for perfectly good reasons, are going to object, want changes or simply have different priorities. Indeed, the president's main job is simply to motivate his own people to carry out his orders. Any president who comes into office thinking his orders carry themselves out is in for a big disappointment. The easiest thing in the world to do in the White House is counsel delay; there are almost many items that can legitimately be put on the front burner, while others are pushed to the rear. By their nature, foreign and defense issues always tend to be on the top of the heap because they are necessarily time sensitive. This means that domestic and economic issues invariably get pushed to the back of the line. Because the president is extremely pressed for time, with many ceremonial duties that are extremely time-intensive, he must rely on his staff to keep things moving forward. The principal traffic cop is the chief of staff, but he, too, is pressed for time. This means that the departments and agencies must fend for themselves most of the time. The cabinet secretaries, in particular, are critical to the implementation of a president's program. Among the cabinet, there is a clear pecking order. The most important are State, Treasury, Defense and Justice. These were the original departments established by George Washington, and they remain the elite departments of government. OMB is also critical because it tends to manage everything to do with domestic policy, since almost all administration initiatives intersect with the budget in some way. OMB also reviews regulations and the testimony of administration officials before Congress. We now know a great deal about Bush's foreign policy and defense team. Although not official, it is a foregone conclusion that Colin Powell will be Secretary of State. And as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we can assume that he will have a lot to say about defense policy as well. We can also assume that Dick Cheney, the vice presidential nominee and a former Secretary of Defense, will also have a great deal to say about defense policy. Lastly it is assumed that Condoleezza Rice of Stanford University will become Bush's national security adviser. By contrast, we know much less about Bush's domestic and economic appointments. It is thought that Larry Lindsey, his chief economic adviser, will be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Economist John Cogan, also of Stanford, is assumed to be in line for OMB director. But as yet, we have no clue about who Bush might appoint as Treasury Secretary, U.S Trade Representative and other key economic policy positions. If Bush is, in effect, going to name most of the key members of his foreign policy and defense staff before the election, he should do the same on the economic side. There are many excellent candidates to choose from. Steve Forbes would be an outstanding choice for Treasury, where he can make sure that Bush's tax and Social Security promises are kept. Bill Archer, the retiring chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a longtime Texas congressman, would also be an outstanding Treasury Secretary. Bush's personnel decisions thus far show superb judgment. If his appointments to key economic agencies are as good as those he has made for defense and foreign policy, prospects for continued economic growth will be greatly enhanced.