Clear and Present Danger

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

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.

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