Assembling Bush Administration Shows Motivaton

27 October 2000

By Stentor Danielson

Both George W. Bush and Al Gore think they should be the President-elect. Bush, buoyed by recount after recount sustaining his slim lead in Florida and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' certification of his win on Sunday, has begun acting like a President-elect.

Notice that I don’t say Bush is acting "presidential." Both men are doing what politicians do best -- looking for advantages, adopting whatever rhetoric is expedient, and always spinning, spinning, spinning. Besides, Gore has him beat 14-2 in the number of American flags displayed in his latest television appearance.

What Bush has done is to begin selecting the members of the administration he will head if he prevails in court between now and January 20. The General Services Administration (GSA) has refused Bush the office space and $5.3 million allocated for aiding the president-elect in this task, forcing Bush to raise private funds. Though the GSA, as well as a sizeable chunk of the American electorate, do not think Bush is the President-elect just yet, Bush has made a shrewd move in preparing his administration as if he were.

It is understandable that the GSA would be reluctant to give its blessing to Bush when there is still a possibility that Gore could become our 43rd President. But Harris’ certification of Bush’s win in Florida -- whether correct or not -- changes the rules of the game. We are no longer awaiting a winner in an undecided state. We now have a winner, whose win may be overturned.

Until such time as Gore wins another recount and manages to find 538 more votes, Bush gets Florida’s 25 Electoral votes and hence the Presidency. I’m not going to argue about whether Gore should and can get those votes. I have too much bias both against a Bush Presidency and at the same time for a Bush Presidency that would be so ineffective and quasi-legitimate that it would set the Democrats up for an easy win in 2004. But I can say that the rules of the game have changed and Bush’s work on forming an administration is a smart use of those changes.

For one, it is a practical necessity that Bush begin work on picking his administration as soon as he can justify it. Columnist David Ignatius was pointing out as early as June 4 that both campaigns needed to start thinking about the transition to the presidency soon, lest they run out of time in the 73 short days between election day and the inauguration. Clinton nearly didn’t make it, and many of his last-minute appointments turned out to be ill-considered and needed to be replaced. Getting the necessary security clearances from the FBI can be time-consuming, so President-elect-for-now Bush needs to let them get started as soon as he can.

The situation is not so urgent for Gore, who can, if necessary, retain as much of the Clinton administration as he needs. This is a stroke of good luck for the Vice President, as he has less ground to justify acting like the confirmed President-elect at this stage of the game.

Having a well-planned team in place by January 20 is especially important given the divisive nature of this election. Even if Gore wins all the recounts he and his supporters desire yet still fails to uncover enough votes to win, a Bush presidency will be plagued by suggestions of illegitimacy. Plus, for every American who wants Bush in the White House, there will be one American who would rather have President Gore, not to mention the 50-50 split in the Senate and the incredibly slim Republican control of the House. If Bush wants to get anything done, he needs to start out strong.

Of course, there are many of us who, seeing Bush’s policy stances, would prefer an ineffective Bush presidency to an effective one. But from Bush’s point of view, his biggest challenge is to avoid joining Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Pierce and others in the ranks of Presidents without a notable accomplishment.

The timing of Bush’s announcement that he will forge ahead with planning his administration without the help of the GSA is also well-calculated. Granted, he has been looking into the makeup of his administration for some time now. But by raising the issue again when he did, he taps into public opinion that is slowly bust surely turning his way. Acting like a President-elect can help to cement that shift, smoothing over his own somewhat hypocritical appeal to the Supreme Court and uncompromising demands for Gore to concede.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll published earlier this week showed six in 10 Americans, including one in four Gore supporters, want the Vice President to concede. This is a clear shift from earlier polls showing that most people were willing to let the election process drag on if it meant a more accurate count and more legitimate victor.

By acting like the real President-elect, Bush can reinforce the growing feeling that he is the real victor and Gore is a sore loser. Though the votes have been cast, having the backing of public opinion is still vital in determining how well Bush is able to achieve his objectives. Plus, the judges and other government officials who will have the final say in this election aren’t living in a different world than the rest of the electorate. An appearance of strength and legitimacy could prove a crucial unseen factor in the pending court cases.

The GSA would rather have Bush wait until he is the only claimant to the title of President-elect before they give him their money and office space. Their position is less tenable now that Gore is seeking not only to win Florida, but also to overturn Bush’s victory there. Bush made a smart move in pressing forward without their help. Hopefully, they will reimburse him and his donors if and when Gore concedes his defeat.

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