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What's in the cards for loyal Andy?

PRESIDENT BUSH'S emphasis on loyalty as opposed to stature has met its ultimate test. He has saved the biggest of his choices -- the anemic Treasury Department -- for last. The issue can be defined simply: Does he have the nerve to promote his chief of staff, Andrew Card, to the position Card appears to covet? And does he have the nerve to thumb his nose at the tut-tutters who would fault such an appointment on qualification grounds?

Recent history would compel a "yes" to both questions, but in an administration in which secrecy is second only to loyalty, recent history also compels a hedge or two.

What is at stake is the position that will matter far more in Bush's second term than it did in his first. In the first term, the first treasury secretary was counted on to perform a very easy task -- be a salesmen for repeated tax cuts in the face initially of a huge budget surplus and later of a lid's-off fiscal atmosphere following the 9/11 attacks. The second treasury secretary was counted on simply to roam the country and claim that all was well with the economy.

This time around, the stakes are much higher -- the new secretary will be in the middle of an effort to upset the Social Security and income tax apple carts while avoiding a dollar collapse and interest rate explosion now that deficits have gone past the stratosphere.

Since the Bush oligarchy is oblivious to conventional restraints from outside advice and criticism, this would seem to require Card's elevation in order to maintain White House control of the government's top economic policy post. This, after all, has been the postelection pattern. Outsiders -- like Kellogg CEO Carlos Gutierrez, -- are welcome at places like the Commerce Department. But for the "inner Cabinet," meaning the really big jobs, only insiders need apply.

Consider the record. Condoleezza Rice for Colin Powell at State; Alberto Gonzales for John Ashcroft at Justice; Margaret Spellings for Rodney Paige at Education; and Mark McClellan (brother of White House spokesman Scott) still hanging in as possible replacement for Tommy Thompson at Health and Human Services. These are the big arenas in Bush's view, and all are being staffed by loyalists.

What, one might reasonably inquire, would be the point of all that conniving if Bush went outside to fill a job that outsiders have displeased him in filling during his first term? Paul O'Neill, a Dick Cheney idea from Ford administration days, was never on the reservation long enough to be faulted for being off it; and John Snow, plucked from the railroad business, was dissed inside the White House from the beginning. Snow also committed an unpardonable campaign goof, referring to job losses (in Ohio, no less) as a myth during one unfortunate campaign appearance. From Bush's perspective, Card makes the most sense, which is why the trial balloons with his name attached keep appearing. For those stuck on stature and resume, such an appointment might seem absurd, but the truth is he could easily do the job, especially if Bush's agenda is a radical one and requires discipline. I can still see the state rep from Massachusetts doing odd jobs, including driving cars, when Bush's dad was running for president in the Iowa caucuses 25 years ago. He is one of the very few Bush II key people with ties to Bush I that are in perfect working order.

Card came with Bush I into the Reagan administration, then into the Bush I White House, and then into big-time government as his second transportation secretary. He was in Bush II campaign from the beginning, and while he is a chief of staff more involved with operations and control than policy, his skills are considerable. I'm a believer that almost anybody can do almost anything, and Card is a perfect example of the type. It is doesn't matter what kind of Social Security privatization idea Bush tries: a bipartisan one with transition costs funded with a compensating tax increase or a partisan one with smoke and mirrors. Nor does it matter what kind of tax policy he chooses: a radical move to replace investment and income taxes with consumption levies, or a consensus-seeking effort to achieve true simplicity.

No matter, Bush can count on Card, including asking him to stay at the White House. Anybody else at Treasury, however, would involve risk, especially that of independence. Card is the ultimate Bushie, which is why the way the Bush treats him in the days ahead will be fascinating to watch.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is 

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