Bush avoided appointing ideologues to key jobs, with some exceptions—most notably Attorney General John Ashcroft. Given the strong support of the Republican right for his campaign, and the Republicans’ long exile during the Clinton years, that was no small feat. Leaders of the Religious Right and conservative Republicans pressed ideological true-believers on the Cheney-led transition team.
Leading conservative intellectuals, like Paul Wolfowitz, found themselves shunted to second-tier positions, and big thinkers grumbled that it was a “NINA” administration—No Intellectuals Need Apply.
The pattern continued during Bush’s first two years in office. When economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey resigned in December 2002, Bush replaced him with Stephen Friedman, former chairman of Goldman Sachs. Friedman has been active in the Concord Coalition, a group that had long argued for balanced budgets and fiscal restraint. Many key conservatives did not think he was the right choice. They argued that the primary goal ought to be reducing taxes to grow the economy, not cutting spending to balance the budget. But Bush insisted on Friedman. His advisers signaled they were willing to take the heat from the right to ensure that Bush had a team he felt comfortable working with. He could have avoided the right-wing challenge by picking an ideologue. He instead went with a pragmatist.
Almost all key Bush appointees were Republicans, but most were moderates. Nearly all of them had substantial practical experience as well as personal relationships with him. He brought with him trusted Texas hands like Rove, Hughes, and Allbaugh. He hired experienced governors like Thompson, Whitman, and Ridge. Roderick R. Paige became education secretary after leading the Houston schools. Powell helped lead the army to success in the 1991 Gulf War, and Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon a quarter century after he had last been secretary. Some of Bush’s nominees, such as Gale Norton for Interior and Spencer Abraham for Energy had previously held controversial positions, and Norton was considered by many an ideological choice. But only John Ashcroft, nominated for attorney general, was challenged strongly on ideological grounds, and Bush won that battle.
The triumph of pragmatism helped cement the Team Bush discipline. Bill Clinton had selected his cabinet to represent certain interests. Chosen because of their ideas and constituencies, they not surprisingly argued forcefully for both when issues came to the fore. That, in turn, often led to fierce internal battles that got in the way of the president’s agenda. By contrast, Bush focused on getting the job done—and the job clearly was the president’s agenda. His focus on pragmatic appointees also helped secure discipline. The job, not the underlying philosophy, drove debate.