Can The New Chief Of Staff Keep Clinton In The Center?

Why would a millionaire entrepreneur from North Carolina return to Washington as Chief of Staff to a President who may spend his second term mired in scandal? Erskine B. Bowles's answer to a group of moderate House Republicans was not what they expected from a Democrat. "He really wants to achieve a balanced budget," says Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Bowles is known as the Lord of Discipline--the first person to put Bill Clinton on a schedule. Now, the venture capitalist is trying to turn centrist campaign promises into an agenda that meets "the challenges of a 21st century with more limited resources." His priorities sound like Corporate America's wish list: expanding exports, investing in technology, reforming education, and improving job training. They reflect the New Democrat side of Clinton, who at times seems enamored of the government activism favored by traditional liberals. Bowles's influence may keep Clinton anchored in the center.

As Clinton's first Small Business Administration boss, Bowles devised a plan that processed twice the loans with 25% fewer staffers. Two years ago, he became White House deputy chief of staff to bring order to an often chaotic crew, but he left last year to form Carousel Capital Partners LP, a merchant bank based in Charlotte, N.C. It took Clinton's personal appeal for Bowles to return as staff chief.

THREE-PAGE MEMOS. The 51-year-old Tarheel is quickly taking charge. He's increasing accountability by making managers explain their duties, stressing teamwork, and putting an end to 40-page policy tomes to the President. The new limit: crisp three-page memos. He also is reshaping Clinton's staff with people more skilled in management or policy than politics.

All Chiefs of Staff wield great power through their proximity to the President and control of access to the Oval Office. But the President's close friendship makes Bowles particularly imposing in the White House. Taming the lions on Capitol Hill will be a greater challenge. To make up for his limited political experience, Bowles will rely on new deputy John D. Podesta, a veteran Democratic insider; congressional liaison John Hilley, a former Senate staffer; and a bipartisan cadre of savvy private lobbyists.

One big change: Bowles is reaching out to Hill Republicans with more relish than his predecessor, former Representative Leon E. Panetta. Bowles has privately assured Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) that he truly seeks consensus. And GOP leaders, weary of Panetta's partisanship, are giving Bowles the benefit of the doubt. "I want a straight-shooter instead of [someone] playing games behind our backs," says Michigan's Upton. Adds former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein: "He's a reality therapist who can convey the President's wishes to Capitol Hill and convey [Congress'] unvarnished views to the President."

Still, GOP skeptics want action. Early tests will come when Congress tackles issues such as the 1998 budget and a clean-air bill. "We'll find out quickly if he's a fast learner," says a Hill Democrat. "If members of Congress sense vulnerability, they'll start dancing on him."

Friends say Bowles won't be easily intimidated. "This is no country bumpkin," says former aide Rick Hernandez, now CEO of a Washington-based computer services company. "He'll do what's necessary to succeed."

Perhaps. But in recent years, the Chief of Staff job has chewed up other able businessmen. Bowles is hoping that a good start and goodwill on Capitol Hill will allow this businessman to survive in a job tailor-made for a politician.

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