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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2000 / 25 Elul 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Gore and Bush should prepare to lead -- WHAT IS Texas Gov. George W. Bush doing to get ready to run the government if he wins the election? His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, says, "We're not talking about it. The fastest way to jinx a transition is to talk about it."

OK, what is Vice President Al Gore doing? Spokesman Doug Hattaway says, "I've got nothing to say. We're keeping our eyes on the prize and not putting the cart before the horse."

These are understandable poses, designed to avoid charges of presumptuousness. In fact, other aides say that some advance work is being done by both campaigns on both the personnel and policy fronts.

But even these aides are vague about what planning is under way and do their best to minimize the extent of it.

It would be far better for the country if voters expected the candidates to be preparing to govern and demanded assurances that they were doing so.

Specifically, the campaigns should be assembling a "first 100 days" (or, more effectively, a "first 180 days") policy and legislative agenda and figuring out which key government posts need to be filled on a priority basis to accomplish the agenda.

There are also steps that the Senate and President Clinton should take to smooth the winning candidate's transition and get vital information to new appointees.

An abundance of evidence has been gathered confirming that the 11 weeks between the election and the inauguration can have a decisive effect on an administration. Without advance planning, a chaotic transition can make a mess of a presidency, or at least make a mess of the beginning of a term.

In 1992, Clinton shrewdly improvised an economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., to focus attention on his top policy priority, but he failed to make a single top appointment for six weeks, and then he put himself through contortions trying to find a Cabinet that "looked like America."

It led, Brookings Institution scholar Steve Hess wrote last week, to "juggling, musical chairs, tug-of-war, mix and match, a puzzle, jigsaw or crossword."

Clinton dropped from consideration qualified white males he knew in favor of minority candidates he barely knew and was severely embarrassed in his first efforts to find a female attorney general.

Then he complicated his first weeks in office by allowing the issue of gays in the military to dominate. He fired the White House travel office staff. And it took until November 1993 to finish making all his sub-Cabinet appointments.

Even though George Bush took over from Ronald Reagan in a "friendly" transition in 1988, Reagan was forced to issue two orders to his appointees to submit resignations so that Bush could appoint his own government. Some Reaganites were bitter at being "purged."

One of Bush's nominations, that of former Republican Sen. John Tower of Texas as Defense secretary, proved to be a disaster -- partly because Tower made the mistake of talking to the media before he met with the former colleagues presiding over his confirmation.

According to Hess, most experts judge Reagan's 1980 transition to be the best one yet. Before the election, top Reagan staffer Ed Meese assigned aides to focus on 87 administration posts that most needed to be filled and to work out policy priorities for the administration's first 180 days.

Advanced planning is just one of several ideas for smooth transitions assembled by various experts and think tanks this year with grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Presidential Appointee Initiative, chaired by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, R-Kan., and former White House budget director Franklin Raines, is urging the Senate to complete passage of a bill that will reduce the difficulty of getting appointees named, briefed, cleared and confirmed in a timely manner.

Clinton is being urged to sign a draft executive order that the FBI prepare to finish field investigations of appointees in 25 working days and create a commission to simplify the questionnaires that appointees are required to complete by three different executive agencies.

The questionnaires, which currently have to be typed, are so complicated and detailed that 20 percent of appointees spend $5,000 or more for help. One Clinton Cabinet officer spent $20,000.

Other recommendations for Bush and Gore gleaned from studies of past transitions by such groups as the Brookings-American Enterprise Institute's Transition to Governing Project and the University of Maryland's White House 2001 include picking a top White House staff -- especially a chief of staff and personnel chief -- before the Cabinet and having officials talk to their predecessors.

The experts also advise making appointments in clusters to send a message, avoiding constraining commitments like Clinton's vow to cut the White House staff by 25 percent, starting early to match available talent with the administration's demographic goals - and telling the press what's going on.

According to Fleischer, "The governor and his top staff are treating (the transition) seriously and prudently." That's reassuring, but it's not information.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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