With Sununu Out, New Ideas Could Come Blowing In

Call it the thud heard round the Beltway. Big, bad John H. Sununu was a towering figure in the Bush Administration's power pyramid. So it should come as no surprise that his downfall as White House Chief of Staff, hastily announced on Dec. 3, will reverberate in Washington for months.

For starters, Sununu's removal gives President Bush a chance to revamp a fumble-prone White House staff. That could help him arrest a political free-fall that has sent his poll ratings plummeting 40 points in 10 months. It also paves the way for formation of a Sununu-less campaign team.

But the sharpest aftershock of Sununu's tumble won't be felt until the fascination with White House job-hopping ebbs. Simply put, the staff chief's departure -- he'll stay on as a figurehead counselor until March -- will break the policy hammerlock exerted by Sununu and Budget Director Richard G. Darman. The move also could expose Bush to a commodity that has been in short supply in his Administration: fresh ideas. Says a senior GOP strategist: "This breaks the logjam."

MORE FIRE. Together, the "Mensa twins" dominated Bush policymaking, wielding control over taxes, the budget, environmental regulation, science policy, and most other domestic and political matters. The budget director has come under renewed fire from GOP conservatives and will have to devote most of his legendary wiles to saving his job.

Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, a top contender for the staff chief's job, is a back-slapping, lapel-grabbing pol without Sununu's ideological rigidity or intellectual pretension -- and he still nurses a grudge over rough treatment at Darman's hands. "Darman has to be the most nervous man in Washington right now," says Steven Schier,a Carleton College political scientist.Denied the Sununu connection, Darman will have a tougher time dominating Cabinet meetings and insulating the President from outside policy advice. Already, business leaders and Hill Republicans are counseling Bush to take more aggressive action to jump-start the economy, though Bush is resisting. And nervous GOP political pros are urging a serious White House commitment to tackling the problems of inadequate health insurance and other festering domestic ills. Sununu and Darman tended to view such issues as "second-term concerns."

Bush badly needs a "new breeze" to ventilate the arid intellectual climate of his Administration. The best indicator of whether fresh currents are wafting will come in late January, when the President delivers his State of the Union address. Bush is under pressure to unveil new policies to boost investment, provide tax relief for the middle class, and contain health costs. But with Darman fixated on the $360 billion deficit, Bush focused on foreign policy, and the White House staff in disarray, the early line on the State of the Union was to expect an artful repackaging of shopworn ideas. That may change now that Sununu has been elbowed aside and Bush is facing a fight for political survival. Already, White House aides are leaking word that their concerns about the deficit may be shelved for a while, and that the State of the Union may call for expanded health insurance and "temporary" middle-class tax cuts. Says a longtime Presidential adviser: "Sununu was bright, but not politically smart. It began to look like he was running the country. As a result, Bush has every businessman in America mad at him. He needed a fresh slate."

If Skinner steps up to the job of staff chief, that's exactly what Bush will get. A former Illinois transportation official, Skinner first attracted attention as a crusading U. S. Attorney. Politically astute and well-connected, he played a key role in Bush's campaign drives in Illinois. Skinner lacks Sununu's ability to marshal facts and absorb complex data. But he's also lacking Sununu's unerring ability to alienate Bush allies in Congress. "Skinner is very pragmatic," says Mary Matalin, chief of staff at theRepublican National Committee.

NO MIRACLES. That's not to say that Skinner, who had not been offered the staff chief's job in the immediate wake of Sununu's resignation, represents some miracle cure. White House aides caution that he is a day-to-day problem solver. Says a senior Administration official: "He's not someone who is in any evident way interested in policy." And right-wingers, who felt a natural kinship with Sununu, are suspicious of Skinner's mainstream views.

Ultimately, the key test for Skinner -- or any Sununu successor -- won't be how well he or she fares at Capitol Hill schmoozing. The test will be taking a President who is uncomfortable with domestic matters and accustomed to delegating domestic decisions to a narrow group of subordinates and getting him to tune in to the cries of distress from the heartland. If Sam Skinner can pull that one off, he'll easily surpass Sununu on the political IQ charts -- and help his boss get reelected, too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.