Clear and Present Danger

Democrats Have the Goods to Sink John Ashcroft's Nomination. Now the Question Is Whether They Have the Guts.

 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.

As the string of recent decisions made by current attorney general Janet Reno shows, the long arm of the attorney general has reached down into every corner of the republic.

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."

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