In Washington and the White House, the game of musical chairs is still going strong: but it is more than a game. Since the election on Nov. 2, eight of the 15 members of President George W. Bush's first-term Cabinet have resigned. This is already a higher rate of turnover than occurred at this transition stage under the last two presidents who won a second term, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and more departures are predicted. Yet the number of outgoing Cabinet members is less significant than the kind of individuals who have been chosen to replace them.
There's Carlos Gutierrez, the new commerce secretary, a native of Havana who began his career at Kelloggs, selling cereal out of a van; and Margaret Spellings, the new education secretary, and the first woman in that post for almost a quarter of a century; and Alberto Gonzales, the new justice secretary, who is the son of a migrant farm worker; and of course Condoleezza Rice, the first black female US secretary of state, who has replaced Colin Powell, the first black male to hold that post. A multimillionaire and a son of privilege, Bush is successfully engineering -- or so it seems -- a rainbow administration.
At one level, this is to his and the US' credit. It is also a vivid demonstration of why the right here is currently so much more successful than its British equivalent. To be sure, because this is a presidential and not a parliamentary system, Bush is not confined in his choice of Cabinet ministers to elected officials. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a British rightwing Cabinet being flooded by quite so many females, immigrants and non-whites. The Tories are not yet that adroit.
Because, make no mistake, Bush's Cabinet appointments represent the politics of calculation quite as much as -- if not more than -- meritocracy and multiculturalism. Since so many of Bush's new appointees are women or from minority groups, it will be much harder for Senate Democrats to withhold from them the necessary approval.
Moreover, appointing individuals who were not born to the purple (as Bush himself was), but who instead owe their prominence to him, is an obvious way of buttressing Cabinet loyalty. But the calculation involved in these new Cabinet appointments goes deeper than this. By so strenuously encompassing diversity within his administration, Bush is further reinforcing what proved the Republicans' most potent message during the election: that he and they stand for America, that indeed they are America, while the Democrats are a party of sectional interests and half-baked elitists.
Of course, this claim is substantially unfair. The Republicans invoke a united America, but they also draw on vital sectional interests of their own: evangelical Christians, the gun lobby, the oil industry, and much of Wall Street. In other ways, too, their opportunity-for-all politics are not quite what they seem. If one looks below the top positions in Bush's administration to the mass of senior executive positions, the number of female and minority appointees is far less impressive than it was under Bill Clinton.
None the less, in one respect, the Republicans' critique is correct. The Democrats have allowed themselves to appear overidentified with particular groups in US society, and so made it easier for their opponents to posture as the party of the nation.