Democrats Have the Goods to Sink John Ashcroft's Nomination.
                Now the Question Is Whether They Have the Guts
                Clear and Present Danger
                     by James Ridgeway

                WASHINGTON, D.C.—The uphill battle to stop John Ashcroft from
                becoming attorney general got a boost late last week, with the
                unexpected arrival of two dozen boxes stuffed with "opposition
                research" against the former senator from Missouri. The damning files
                were gathered by Democrat Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane
                crash just weeks before the conclusion of a vicious, racially polarized
                campaign in which he successfully unseated Ashcroft.

                The contents of these boxes, now sitting in the offices of People for
                the American Way, have become the hottest property on Capitol Hill.
                They paint a portrait of a patriarchal, extremist Ashcroft entirely at
                odds with the bland, friendly image the ever-smiling conservative tries
                so hard to project. In a report posted at the nonprofit's Web site
                (, the group reveals that Ashcroft has voted against
                abortion rights and even common forms of birth control, and systematically
                turned aside the judicial nominations of woman after woman.

                When his appointment was first announced, Ashcroft seemed a sure
                bet. But as the details of his history with blacks and women began to
                raise eyebrows and questions, Ashcroft suddenly found his nomination
                at risk. "Significant opposition is building," says Nan Aron, head of the
                Alliance for Justice. "More and more people are learning about his
                record." The Ashcroft nomination is so much at risk, in fact, that Bush's
                choice for labor secretary, Linda Chavez—suddenly caught in a rerun of
                Nannygate—may end up serving as the scapegoat who'll try to draw
                enough fatal fire away from Ashcroft to gain him Senate approval.

                By the numbers, Republicans have the pull in the evenly divided
                Judiciary Committee to send the Ashcroft nomination to the Senate
                floor. Then things could get much trickier. Ashcroft could steal some
                votes from the ranks of Southern Democrats, but he could also lose the
                crucial support from what's left of the moderate Northeastern
                GOP—namely lawmakers like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jim Jeffords
                of Vermont, who've been willing to break with the right-wing party line
                on abortion rights and the environment. With the chamber split 50-50,
                a few defections on either side could make the difference.

                And there's another wild card in the deck. Civil rights groups arrayed
                against Ashcroft are privately plotting for a filibuster that could defeat
                the nomination. If indeed they can find a senator brave enough to
                make a kamikaze run against the new Bush administration, Democrats
                can undo the razor-thin Republican edge. It takes 60 votes to shut off
                the nonstop verbal stream of a filibuster; though Ashcroft supporters
                might be able to muster 51 or 52 votes to shove him through, the
                prospect of collecting 10 more backers would be daunting.

                Yet who would have the guts to pull the trigger? As a former senator,
                Ashcroft enjoys the perks of the old fogies' club, who aren't known for
                trying to take each other out. What's more, the Democrats have a
                lackluster record for standing up and fighting the conservative
                Republican juggernaut. Anyone launching a filibuster would stand to
                become a pariah in the club—perhaps even becoming an untouchable
                among the Democrats—but would also bask in the limelight.

                Finding the person willing to play that role won't be easy. Could it be
                Hillary Clinton, who claims to have been victimized by the right-wing
                conspiracy? Hardly. One of the handful of women senators who back
                abortion rights, someone like Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, California's
                Dianne Feinstein? There's Paul Wellstone, whose bark has always been
                worse than his bite. Teddy Kennedy? New York's Charles Schumer has
                raised questions about Ashcroft. But would the circumspect Schumer
                bet his burgeoning Senate career on a filibuster? Doubtful.

                Whoever takes Ashcroft head-on will have plenty of ammo. Ashcroft
                has left a lengthy trail of statements on his positions, which are far to
                the right of stock Republican tenets like limited government. He holds
                an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, which only recently
                lifted a prohibition against interracial dating. Ashcroft thinks Social
                Security is a bad idea, wants to ban flag burning, and in the interest of
                "constitutional freedom," would make it easier to pack a concealed
                weapon. He once said providing clean needles to drug addicts was like
                "issuing bulletproof vests to bank robbers."

                Ashcroft on homosexuality: "I believe the Bible calls it a sin, and that's
                what defines sin for me."

                On taxes: "In Washington, taxes and spending are the only things more
                addictive than nicotine."

                On federal funding for the arts: "I believe it is wrong as a matter of
                public policy to subsidize free expression." Congress put "an end to
                funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. No more subsidized
                profanity, no more subsidized obscenity, no more silk-stocking subsidies
                for the symphony."

                On abortion: "We must start by voting to defend innocent human life. .
                . . God's precious gift of life must be protected in law and nurtured in love."

                The son of a Pentecostal preacher, John Ashcroft is a man who doesn't
                drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't dance. He doesn't mince words about
                his far-right views: "Two things you find in the middle of the road" are
                "a moderate and a dead skunk."

                A hardliner like Ashcroft might make a good legislator, but his dogma
                fits him poorly for a role like attorney general. Yet it's exactly those
                staunchly held views that have the religious right salivating over the
                notion of Ashcroft as lead lawyer for the nation.

                The responsibilities—and might—of the attorney general are enormous.
                The AG interprets laws for the entire government, represents the
                United States in the courts, and makes sure the executive branch
                complies with Supreme Court rulings. As head of the Justice
                Department, the AG oversees the FBI, sets policy of the Immigration
                and Naturalization Service, administers the federal death penalty, and
                commands the Drug Enforcement Agency's war on drugs. The AG exerts
                strong influence over judicial appointments and directs the corps of
                U.S. attorneys nationwide.

                As the string of recent decisions made by current attorney general
                Janet Reno shows, the long arm of the AG has reached down into every
                corner of the republic: from the siege of Waco and the shootout at
                Ruby Ridge, to the forced removal of Elián González and the sporadic
                enforcement of the Voting Rights Act in the Florida election.

                Having Ashcroft serve as AG is especially important to the conservative
                movement because he provides a rare bridge between the free-market
                economic wing of the GOP and the Christers in the social wing. The
                free-market Republicans want as little government as possible, while
                the Christian fundamentalists want to employ the power of the federal
                government to drive social change.

                Ashcroft has two signature items on his agenda. The first is guns. He is
                a firm supporter of the NRA, which reportedly contributed nearly
                $400,000 to his last senatorial campaign. Two years ago, Ashcroft
                voted against an amendment to require safety locks on firearms. He
                opposed a ban on assault weapons. And in 1999 he urged Missouri
                voters to legalize the carrying of concealed weapons. He also supports
                the NRA's efforts to have the FBI erase records it keeps on gun
                transactions immediately instead of holding them for future reference.

                The second flagship issue for Ashcroft is his opposition to abortion.
                Pro-choice groups are concerned that Ashcroft might not only lead a
                drive to overturn Roe v. Wade, but also would refuse to enforce federal
                laws protecting abortion clinics from violence and harassment. But
                Ashcroft would have the federal government reach further into people's
                daily sex lives. He once sponsored the Human Life Act of 1998, which
                attempted to express the medical nuances of fertilization as a matter
                of hard law—an effort supporters of abortion rights say would have
                resulted in a ban on the pill and IUDs.

                But Ashcroft's antiwoman record goes beyond reproductive rights. In
                an online report, People for the American Way details his serial
                objection to women judges nominated for the federal bench—a
                years-long performance that might provide a preview of how, as AG, he
                would handle recommendations for the court. Ashcroft tried to delay
                and defeat the 1996 nomination of Margaret Morrow, claiming she was
                a liberal activist who should be kept from the bench because of her
                efforts to promote pro bono legal work. Buoyed by bipartisan support,
                Morrow was eventually appointed, but only after Ashcroft helped stall it
                for two years. He was one of 11 senators to vote against the 1998
                appointment of Margaret McKeown, which had been stalled for two
                years, and one of 30 to oppose Ann Aiken's bid for a federal judgeship
                in Oregon. With 28 other senators, he voted against Sonia Sotomayor's
                appointment to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which had been
                held more than a year. A wall of resistance from Ashcroft kept at bay
                for two-and-a-half years the confirmation of Susan Oki Mollway, the
                first Asian American woman to serve on the federal bench.

                Ashcroft has an equally poor record on race. He opposes affirmative
                action, and voted to curb laws aimed at preventing banks from redlining
                minority neighborhoods, denying loans to consumers there. Sometimes
                hisantiminority stances are couched in the old states' rights patois of
                the segregationists. He gave a 1998 interview to the neoconfederate
                magazine Southern Partisan, in which he congratulated the publication.
                "You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like
                Lee, Jackson, and Davis," Ashcroft said. "Traditionalists must do more.
                I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect,
                or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing
                their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."

                Other times, his antiminority maneuvers come under the cover of the
                right-to-life movement, reports People for the American Way. As a
                senator, Ashcroft voted in 1998 against the nomination of Dr. David
                Satcher, an African American, for surgeon general because he was
                pro-choice, "someone who is indifferent to infanticide." Ashcroft had
                done the same to Dr. Henry Foster, a black physician who supported
                abortion rights.

                And finally, he led the move to block confirmation of James Hormel as
                ambassador to Luxembourg, on the basis that Hormel was openly gay.
                Only Ashcroft and Senator Jesse Helms voted against Hormel in the Senate
                Foreign Relations Committee, but because Helms held the committee chair,
                the pair was able to keep the nomination from a vote by the full Senate.

                When Ashcroft comes up for his own vote before his former Senate
                colleagues, he will most likely face his strongest opposition from
                Democrats over his bouncing of black judge Ronnie White, a member of
                the Missouri Supreme Court nominated by Clinton for a federal
                assignment. At the time Ashcroft was up for reelection, running on a
                "tough on crime" platform. During the early stages of the debate on
                White, Ashcroft evidenced little more than routine interest, asking
                questions about partial-birth abortion and gay rights. But as his own
                reelection campaign against Mel Carnahan heated up, Ashcroft zeroed
                in on White. The senator seized on White's lone and reluctant dissent
                from the execution of a cop killer, who shot three officers and a sheriff's wife.
                White wrote that even though the jury rejected the killer's claim of insanity,
                there must have been something wrong with the man.

                Ashcroft argued that the law enforcement community had raised a "red
                flag" about White. But as it turns out, Ashcroft's fulminating was based
                on what looks like a malevolent distortion of the judge's views. As an
                inquiry by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed, one of the largest
                police organizations in the state supported White, while the others had
                been actively lobbied by Ashcroft or his allies.

                Ashcroft's "marathon public crucifixion" of White caused African
                American Gentry Trotter, an Ashcroft fundraiser, to resign from the
                senator's campaign, and so galvanized black voters in Missouri that
                they voted for Carnahan, even in death.

                The whole grisly scene may soon be played out again, with Democrats
                threatening to call White for testimony, just as Anita Hill was called to
                testify against the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Only this time, liberals
                may have a real chance. Conservatives may just have gone too far.

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