The Bush Administration has never liked its Cabinet secretaries to be the flashy, spotlight-seeking type, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell aside. Most agency leaders in the first term tended to disappear into the background, toe the Administration line, and keep the trains moving on time. Now most of the higher profile Cabinet folk are jumping ship (or are being pushed), and replacements are being brought on line.
Again, the Administration isn’t surprising anyone. Low profile types, who will do a serviceable job, and keep out of the Administration’s way for the most part. But in the case of one Department, the White House is mulling a change that could prove interesting, if not entertaining.
While most of President Bush’s Cabinet performed well out on the campaign trail, one secretary did not: Treasury Secretary John Snow. The former CEO was considered an important advocate for the Bush Administration’s tax and economic policy, but was often caught flubbing things up, particularly in the closing weeks of the campaign in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Now, those miscues about employment, tax cuts, overtime and the like are forgotten in the swirl of victory. By some. But not all. And that may be why the White House is looking at former Texas Senator Phil Gramm as an alternative to Snow at Treasury.
Gramm has been quietly campaigning for the job, and has backers all over Washington looking forward to the return of Dicky Flatt, the Gramm constituent who inspired the former Senator’s tax-cutting, anti-spending philosophy.
The White House isn’t talking about candidates for a job that isn’t available, though talk in Washington is that Snow is on his way out, perhaps sooner rather than later in a second wave of exits that may be orchestrated in early spring, if not before.
“It isn’t that Snow hasn’t done a good job or a bad job,” says a Senate staffer on the Finance Committee. “It’s this notion that the Bush folks could have a stronger, more vocal advocate for issues that are important. Snow was a great team player, but every Treasury Secretary is now going to be compared to [Robert] Rubin from Clinton’s time. Snow just doesn’t compare. Gramm doesn’t either, but will be a far better public face and voice for the Administration than anyone else out there.”
Gramm would lend extra heft to a Bush Administration desperately trying to build support for two critical issues it will press in the coming years: overhauling and simplifying the tax code, and partial privatization of Social Security accounts. Both issues were important to Gramm in his Senate days, and his genial public face and tough talk are thought to be a plus in making the public appeal on these issues.
“The problem that the President has, and I think he knows it, is that he doesn’t have people out there in the agencies who believe wholeheartedly in the kind of change he wants to make,” says a former White House staffer, now working as a lobbyist on the House side. “You have senior people in the Social Security Administration who do not want any form of private investment in the plan. They will not be working for us. You have people in the Treasury Department who do not support the President’s agenda, and will not fight for it. He needs a few more fighters.”
Another potential pickup for Bush’s Cabinet could be Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Before Thanksgiving, Nelson was believed to have been offered the Secretary of Agriculture post by the White House. Nelson did not deny the offer was placed on the table, but would not discuss his thinking. Nelson would probably temporarily become the second Democrat in the Bush Cabinet. Current Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta was the first, but his expected to leave in the second wave of resignations down the road.
Nelson is facing a tough 2006 re-election race, particularly if , as rumored, second-term congressman and former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne decides to challenge him. Nelson’s move over to the Bush team would give Republicans another Senate seat, with GOP Gov. Mike Johanns making the appointment. Osborne would be the favorite to fill that slot, giving the Republicans perhaps an early pickup in the 2006 election cycle.