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Why the Hawks Are Carpet-Bombing Rumsfeld

When George W. Bush unveiled his Administration team, three Washington veterans stood out as guaranteed superstars: Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Six months in, two of the three have lived up to expectations. Then there's Rumsfeld.

The ex-CEO of G.D. Searle & Co. had bold plans to build a high-tech military, push a missile defense system, and cut costs. But all he has done so far is alienate the military brass, defense industry execs, and Congress. While jabs from the Left were predictable, what's surprising is the thunder on the Right--including one leading conservative's suggestion that he resign. "There is almost nobody in this town who is not tearing him to pieces," says a senior GOP congressional aide.

Why has Rumsfeld struggled? For starters, candidate Bush set unrealistically high expectations for a quick, radical Pentagon overhaul. What's more, the glacial pace of picking and confirming aides has left Rumsfeld shorthanded. But he has aggravated matters with what one conservative defense analyst calls an "autocratic" management style and a "chaotic" internal review of defense strategy. At this point, the analyst added, Rumsfeld has "severely undermined any Republican claim to superior competence in defense management."

TAX-CUT INFECTION. All of this angers GOP defense hawks, who saw Bush's election as a blank check to rebuild a military they felt Bill Clinton had decimated. Trouble is, Bush's huge tax cut has reduced the Administration's fiscal flexibility and may leave Rumsfeld's budget looking a lot like the much-loathed Clinton blueprint. After months of wrangling with White House bean counters, for example, Rumsfeld got only half of the extra $10 billion he had sought for 2001. His request for $55 billion more in 2002 was slashed to $33 billion--and it's far from certain he'll get that. Conservatives think his $329 billion budget request for 2002 is insufficient. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, has called on Rumsfeld to resign to highlight "the impending evisceration of the American military." He frets that Bush could become "the President who fiddled with tax cuts while the military burned."

A string of other decisions has irked the Right. Rumsfeld repudiated an aide's memo that suggested breaking off military contacts with China. His Navy Secretary halted training exercises off Vieques, in Puerto Rico--a move condemned by the American Conservative Union and other GOP hawks. And conservatives were outraged by an Air Force decision to cut the B-1 bomber fleet by a third. Critics say Rumsfeld hasn't put a high enough priority on consulting with Capitol Hill allies. Rumsfeld's contempt for Congress may be deserved, says the GOP staffer, "but if he acts that way, Congress will make it impossible for him to do the things he wants to do."

In Rumsfeld's defense, everyone concedes remaking the Pentagon is a daunting task. And while he admits his budget is no cure-all, "it's the largest increase since 1986, in the heyday of the Reagan Administration." Conservative Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) adds that change takes time, so Rumsfeld should be "judged on the goals he is putting in place and not the accomplishments he has already made."

So far, the White House is standing firmly behind Rumsfeld. But some conservatives are starting to believe the Administration is pursuing a "Let them eat Star Wars" approach toward GOP hawks. And they're losing patience with a Defense chief they increasingly believe is unwilling--or unable--to deliver the Reaganesque military revival they had expected. Senate Republicans gripe that Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has moved slowly in scheduling confirmation for Administration nominees. But they agree with him on one point: The process is too bureaucratic.

Nominees must submit separate questionnaires to the White House, the FBI--and often multiple Senate panels. Says Daschle: "I think that's silly. [The paperwork] has gotten out of hand."

Daschle is offering to work with Bush to streamline the process. That would be welcome news at the White House, where aides are chafing at Daschle's blasts at Bush's "isolationist" and "unilateralist" foreign policy. Americans want a Patients' Bill of Rights, and by 44% to 34% they trust Democrats to craft the best plan, according to a Gallup poll. But on a key detail, voters side with the President: 51% worry that lawsuits will increase premiums, while 36% say they are more concerned that they wouldn't be able to sue their HMO. That could lead Bush to hang tough on strict limits on legal claims against health providers. Old Republicans are playing catch-up with New Democrats on the New Economy. But moderate Republicans led by Representative Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) are jumping on the bandwagon with a think tank called New Economy Republicans. This group of lawmakers will solicit ideas from tech execs. Weller & Co. want to challenge Democrats' Progressive Policy Institute as the go-to place for Info Age politics.

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