Dark Victory

The Unintended Consequences of Failing to Stop Ashcroft

Allowing Ashcroft to be confirmed represents a major failure to confront the real meaning of words. There are consequences to this cognitive denial, and we will feel them as the Bush administration twists language to suit its agenda and the Democrats continue to pretend that piss is rain. Of course, if you believe the party's leadership, they've already sent "a shot across the bow" by mustering 42 votes against Ashcroft, one more than is needed to sustain a filibuster—when the time is right. But when will that be? Say what you will about senatorial courtesy, but etiquette was not the reason Ted Kennedy withdrew his threat to filibuster this nomination. Kennedy backed down because the party leadership knew that any attempt to do otherwise would be met by a mass defection. The leadership feared that upwards of 20 Democrats would vote to stop a filibuster. Russ Feingold may call this an olive branch, but Orrin Hatch, the outspoken Republican from Utah, had a more likely explanation for why the Democrats didn't dare try to stop Ashcroft: "They didn't have the guts."

Politics is usually a matter of compromise—that's one of the burdensome glories of a democracy. But this is no ordinary concession. It smacks of the greatest cave-in of liberalism in this century: its failure to resist McCarthyism. Out of panic and a sense that it could control the witch hunt, Democrats colluded in the persecution of communists and so-called fellow travelers. Then, as now, the motivation was a sincere desire to salvage liberalism by demonstrating loyalty. Then, as now, the failure to read the meaning of words—and act accordingly— led to a process that became unstoppable. Before it ended, liberalism was in full retreat and the constitution lay in shreds.

You don't have to conjure up the specter of some new McCarthy to understand the seriousness of the current situation. You need only reckon with the tangible effects of an attorney general whose positions on a host of social issues will bring real pain to millions of people. In failing to act from a full recognition of that pain, the Democrats have allowed themselves to fall for the oldest delusion in their book. They are betting that Ashcroft will galvanize the left and alienate the center, creating a climate for their restoration. But it's far more likely that their tentative opposition will make it even more acceptable to be an avenging angel of the far right.

You can blame Bill Clinton for this failure to confront the meaning of things. After all, he felt your pain even as he kicked you in the groin. You can argue that Clinton's tactic of triangulation normalized right-wing reasoning, opening the door to the first Republican majority in nearly 50 years. But then you must also blame Ralph Nader, who was willing to draw votes from the Democrats in order to create a third force in politics. Up until Election Day, Nader refused to consider the pain his calculation would cause. And like Clinton, he produced the opposite of his intended effect, opening the door to Ashcroft.

These are the wages of allowing the end to justify the means. You never get where you think you're going, but the route you take becomes your destination.

Research: Michael Corwin

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