By National Journal and Burt Solomon
December 2, 1996
For nearly four years now, the White House has been rife with factions and rivalries. Dick Morris versus Harold M. Ickes. The New Democrats versus the traditional liberals. The Arkansans versus the veterans of the "war room." All the inherent contradictions in President Clinton, that is, have been in battle -- often with bloodletting -- against one another.
Clinton has used his policy advisers as "surrogates," an Administration official explained, by assigning them to issues in a way that reflects his views. For instance, deputy domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed, a New Democrat, has embodied the President's conservative impulses on welfare reform and crime, while deputy economic adviser Gene B. Sperling, who was an aide to former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, has done Clinton's liberalish bidding on economic matters. Each has been deferential on the other's turf.
Neither adviser is going anywhere -- except maybe higher -- as Clinton prepares for four more years. But the White House staff, as it's being refashioned by incoming chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles, may look quite a bit different. It seems likely to feature fewer rivalries, strong personalities or back channels to a President who thrives on them. The apparent goal is a better, blander White House.
Ideologically, it stands to become more suited to a political environment in which the Republicans have kept control of Congress. Three top-flight advisers of a liberal bent -- chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, deputy chief of staff Ickes and senior adviser for policy and strategy George R. Stephanopoulos -- are on their way out.
This isn't a clean sweep. Sperling and Hillary Rodham Clinton are staying, and some reinforcements may be on the way. Former staff secretary John D. Podesta, expected to be named as a deputy chief of staff, "would balance Erskine out," a White House adviser said. Bowles, a North Carolina businessman, is consid-ered a southern moderate in his politics.
Still, the likely result -- a net loss of liberals -- has consequences for policy. When policy is kicked around in the White House, an Administration official said, "there are times" that the outcome will change if no one's at the table to make the case for, say, "the smallest possible cut" in programs for the poor. Panetta, for one, has passionately defended federal spending on food stamps and also feels strongly about medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled that's bound to be part of future budget debates. Ickes is in close touch with Democratic constituency groups. Stephanopoulos has kept Clinton informed of the Democratic mood on Capitol Hill.
Bowles seems to have more in mind than a centrist White House. Known as a disciplined manager, he also wants a White House that operates in a more orderly way. Aides say he's thinking, for one thing, of bolstering the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), which hasn't been used much as a vehicle for important policy discussions. He's considering "not so much a change in structure," a senior official said, as bringing in "someone really, really strong" to run it. The council has been headed by Carol H. Rasco, Clinton's top domestic policy adviser, who has traveled widely and isn't seen as having wielded much influence on policy.
There has been talk inside the White House of possibly replacing her with someone of Cabinet stature, such as Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner or Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. Reed is considered likelier. Or Rasco may stay. She said in an interview that she won't be able to decide whether she'd like to stay until it becomes clear what the post might entail. "You've got to look at a job in terms of, `Is it a place you can best utilize your skills?' " she said. If she wants to remain and Bowles wants her gone, the President will face a quandary: whether to show loyalty to an Arkansan who has long been close to both Clintons or to accept the organizational imperatives of his new chief of staff.
The idea, aides say, is to bring the DPC into bureaucratic parity with the National Economic Council, which has served as a high-powered mechanism for coordinating the Administration's economic policy. Director Laura D'Andrea Tyson plans to leave, and deputy national security adviser Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger is thought to have the inside track as her successor.
Or Berger could become the national security adviser if Anthony Lake moves on. (Deputy secretary of State Strobe Talbott and U.S. representative to the United Nations Madeleine K. Albright are also said to be in the running.) Berger, popular inside the White House, is said to have been the main alternative to Bowles when Clinton and a handful of advisers deliberated for hours on Nov. 7 to select a new chief of staff.
"From my knowledge of Erskine," Rasco said, "I find him to be a person always looking to have things work most efficiently." Aides say he wants to make them accountable for doing what they're supposed to do. He isn't a fan of the sort of freewheeling entrepreneurship that has often characterized Clinton's White House -- "like a hallway of independent contractors," as a policy maker said. It's not uncommon for jobs to be tenuously connected to the organization chart or to entail duties that the titles don't describe.
How Bowles will fare in tidying things up remains to be seen. The structure of the White House, after all, arises from the instinctive, amorphous style of the man who occupies the Oval Office.
At least two of the switch-hitting advisers plan to depart -- Stephanopoulos and Rahm Emanuel, the assistant to Clinton for special projects, who has worked on issues ranging from welfare reform to relations with Israel. Emanuel may spend six months or so at the government's Overseas Private Investment Corp. before returning to his hometown of Chicago.
But others may stay. Presidential counselor Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty III, whose assignments have included the Olympics and Latin American relations, is trying to decide whether to return to Arkansas soon to run for the Senate if Dale Bumpers, a fourth-term Democrat, retires in 1998. Deputy White House counsel Bruce R. Lindsey's title hardly reflects his role as a troubleshooter on Whitewater and as a personal confidant to Clinton. "I don't sense Bruce Lindsey ever leaving," a well- connected Arkansan said.
The parade of announced departures is thought to have ended. Senior aides expected to stay include Marcia L. Hale, the director of intergovernmental relations; press secretary Michael D. McCurry; environmental adviser Kathleen A. McGinty; White House counsel John M. (Jack) Quinn; and John L. Hilley, the chief congressional lobbyist, unless ex-Sen. George J. Mitchell, his former boss, becomes Clinton's Secretary of State. Communications director Donald Baer, political director Douglas Sosnik and director of public liaison Alexis M. Herman may stay if they wish, officials said.
Bowles is also assembling his own coterie of aides. Podesta and Sylvia Mathews, who has been Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin's chief of staff, are expected to join deputy White House chief of staff Evelyn S. Lieberman. Insiders say to keep an eye on Victoria L. Radd, a veteran of Clinton's campaigns who has been an associate White House counsel and deputy communications director. She ran the issues team for Bowles as he prepared Clinton for this fall's presidential debates and is said to sit in on all of the meetings to plan a second term.
But other roles have gone begging, at least so far. Neither Bowles nor anyone currently on Clinton's staff seems suited to conduct the sort of high-level negotiations with Congress that Panetta, a former Member, handled or to represent the White House in televised interviews.
But, a White House aide said, "Erskine knows what he doesn't know." For Clinton's sake, he'd better.
By National Journal and Burt Solomon
December 2, 1996