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 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.
Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 9, 2001