From Exercise Partner to Cabinet Power

Commerce Secretary Don Evans, an old Bush sidekick, has piled up some surprising policy victories. Now comes his biggest challenge

The Goddess of Low Expectations was smiling on Donald L. Evans last year when he left the West Texas oil fields to become President Bush's Commerce Secretary. Conventional wisdom had the Midland (Tex.) energy company executive filling a role common to past Commerce honchos: that of a campaign-money man rewarded with a Cabinet assignment so he could continue to act as a liaison to corporate contributors.

Evans has managed far more than just having lunch with execs and collecting political chits for future fund-raising appeals. While playing the public role as cheerleader for a wide range of business-friendly initiatives, he has built a behind-the-scenes power base and emerged as an important policy player in his best friend's White House.


  Most important for Evans: Unlike many Wall Street Republicans, he shares with Bush the instinct to demand redress when American products face unfair international competition. That's why Evans, working in concert with Bush political guru Karl Rove, prevailed in a heated Administration debate on steel imports. At Evans' urging -- and over the objection of Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill -- Bush levied tariffs of up to 30% on imported steel for the next three years.

It was the second big victory in recent months for the 55-year-old Evans. Last December, he skillfully cut backroom deals with textile-state Republicans to ease the President's fast-track trade negotiating bill through the House by a single vote.

That's pretty heady stuff for a guy whose chief qualification for the Cabinet job was once considered to be his position as the President's exercise partner. "Because of his West Texas mannerisms, the sharpies here figured he wasn't very smart," says Richard W. Fisher, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in the Clinton Administration. "But he has shown them he understands politics just fine. As it turns out, Evans is the guy you give the ball to."


  Now, Bush's buddy is preparing for his toughest Washington challenge: moving the Administration's fast-track trade bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate. The measure would renew Presidential authority to negotiate trade deals on an expedited basis -- without having to consult Congress, which, however, would retain the final say on any deals struck by the executive branch.

Usually, trade-expansion legislation sails through the upper chamber, but this debate is fraught with 2004 politics and a clash of congressional egos. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a potential Bush challenger, wants to combine the President's plan with a Democratic measure to expand government assistance to U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of to imports or plant shutdowns.

Democrats also want health-care coverage for more workers and to provide money for laid-off workers to pay for health insurance. But the Administration is balking at the idea of creating a new health-care entitlement and is insisting on separate votes on the two proposals. Their fear: Daschle could please Democratic voters with the worker-friendly provision even as he portrays himself as a probusiness free-trader.


  Meanwhile, Daschle's Democrats are preparing a minefield of amendments opposed by the GOP's business allies, including one that would restrict the ability of multinationals to sue foreign governments in international trade tribunals over regulations that companies say reduce the value of their investments. And even if the Bush plan gets past the Senate, a final version would again have to be ratified by the House.

That could be a big hurdle, since the promises Evans and the GOP leadership made to secure textile-state votes are proving hard to fulfill. To quell a rebellion in the Carolinas, he has formed an interagency committee to step up enforcement of loosely administered quotas on textile imports.

In the meantime, Evans is driving the Administration's post-Enron damage-control initiative. Dubbed "handshake capitalism," the campaign is designed to restore investor trust in Corporate America. It will feature Evans lecturing CEOs about honesty, ethics, and integrity. "I'm going to put my energy into telling [executives] that you have to tell the truth, that you can't have leadership without trust," insists Evans.

Naïve? Perhaps. Nobody is saying Evans, who isn't an economist, will eclipse Administration economic heavyweights such as O'Neill and economic policy adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey. But the Commerce Secretary's effectiveness on Capitol Hill and his easy rapport with the President guarantee he'll have a place at the table.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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