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
(www.pfaw.org), 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
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
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
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.