Torturing John Snow

Posted: Dec 09, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For nearly two weeks, John Snow had been twisting in the wind. Snow had not heard one word on whether he should leave or stay as secretary of the treasury until Wednesday, when President Bush asked him to remain, at least temporarily. The White House had not repudiated the torrent of leaks suggesting that Snow must go, sooner rather than later.
Nobody can accuse Snow of lacking in either loyalty to the president or fervor in trying to sell his economic programs the last two years. But the president's supporters, inside and outside the administration, doubt the former railroad executive is best equipped to achieve Bush's second-term goals of Social Security modernization and tax reform. So, poor Snow was tortured, while the president and his aides figured out what to do with him.

That questions the myth of a super-competent Bush administration. Why was Snow selected in the first place? Why is the re-elected president without a clear choice for treasury? Why has Bush retained a superfluous economic staff position that fit his predecessor's needs? Is the president prepared to confront his second-term economic problems?

Actually, Bush never has appreciated the primacy of the secretary of the treasury in economic policy. It began four years ago, with a maladroit selection of Paul O'Neill to the premier domestic Cabinet position. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fondly remembered O'Neill as a brilliant young bureaucrat 30 years ago. But as the rich, eccentric former CEO of ALCOA, he would not promote the president's program and turned the Treasury Department into a shambles.

Snow was one of those surprise nominations that Bush adores. In picking the CEO of the CSX Corp. (a railroad company) whose previous government experience was in the Transportation Department, Bush wanted a loyalist who would not be another O'Neill, but would push the tax reduction programs he inherited.

While George W. Bush is reputed for valuing loyalty as a two-way street, the treatment of Snow the last two weeks has shocked the president's supporters. Mike Allen of The Washington Post reported one of the most brutal capital comments in memory on Nov. 29, when he quoted a "senior administration official" as saying Snow "can stay as long as he wants, provided it is not very long." Snow is criticized for not being something he never pretended to be: a master of international economics and congressional strategy.

Bush's inner circle has been advised by outsiders that Snow's successor should have clear responsibility for the economy and be able to deal with both Wall Street and Capitol Hill. He should be able to confront the dollar problem and the Treasury's present state of disorganization.

It was recommended that the new secretary get the same broad mandate enjoyed by George Shultz under President Nixon and Robert Rubin under President Clinton.

Bush also has to figure out what to do with the post of national economic director, created by Clinton to find a place for Rubin in 1993, when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen took the Treasury portfolio. When Rubin succeeded Bentsen in 1995, he was replaced by former aide Gene Sperling, who posed no threat to his old boss.

Bush kept this position in 2001, mainly to have a job for campaign economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey. When Lindsey's loyalty and enthusiasm were rewarded with a pink slip, Bush picked Wall Streeter Stephen Friedman (Rubin's former partner). Friedman resigned last week, after two years of invisibility. The president could consider abolishing this job as a fifth wheel.

To replace Snow, Bush might consider impressive possibilities overlooked two years ago: former Sen. Phil Gramm, now an investment banker; publisher Steve Forbes; California investment banker Gerald Parsky, a former assistant treasury secretary.

Sources close to the president say Gramm was getting a good look this time. Parsky was spotted recently leaving Vice President Cheney's office. There is no sign that Forbes, a natural for the job, was being considered.

The word is out, however, that the president -- or at least Chief of Staff Andrew Card -- does not want anybody in this important Cabinet post with an independent power base. If so, the job description would be for somebody to steadfastly promote previously devised policies. In that case, why not keep John Snow, instead of torturing him? That is Bush's decision, at least for now.