Why would one of the Senate’s most prominent progressives break ranks with his fellow Democrats to vote for John Ashcroft? Ask Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. “I am extending . . . an olive branch,” Feingold cooed to his Republican colleagues last week, hastening to add that “it is not a white flag.” Yet even as he scrambled to reassure his enraged progressive base, Feingold basked in the glow of Trent Lott, who thanked him on the Senate floor and pointed out that the GOP leadership had already agreed to allow Feingold’s signature issue—campaign finance reform—to reach the floor. The end apparently justified the means.
And in the end, eight Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Ashcroft, six from states where liberals are only slightly more savory than sodomites. The party was able to muster unanimity only among senators who face reelection in two years, or who see themselves as presidential timber in 2004. This prospect explains why Joseph Lieberman, the Democrats’ ambassador to God, chose to oppose His archangel Ashcroft. As for Lieberman’s liberal colleague from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd, having won an easy victory in 1998 he can afford to play ball with the GOP. The result may be a federal prison or two built in the Nutmeg State, not to mention carte blanche for federal judges nominated by Dodd.
Then there’s free-bird Feingold. He met the standard set by conservative columnist William Safire, who drolly described voting for Ashcroft as “racial profiling in courage.” Feingold can now confront his enemies on the right, who nearly succeeded in defeating him over his opposition to the ban on late-term abortions, with evidence of his independence. So was this a profile in courage or a canny preemptive strike? In politics, it’s best to assume the worst.
Yet Democrats—and even activists—were quick to spin the Ashcroft vote as a tentative victory. “Do we take some pride in the fact that this was the greatest opposition ever to a cabinet nominee? Yes,” said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way and a key player in the anti-Ashcroft campaign. “Do we feel some pride that a number of senators who voted for Ashcroft said they would have voted against him if he were a Supreme Court nominee? Yes.” John Aravosis, who served as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, was convinced that the Democrats had reduced Ashcroft to the status of Dr. Laura, “in the sense that her show failed because she was neutered, and Ashcroft essentially disavowed everything he has stood for.” A third insider, speaking off the record, was more circumspect but still contended that “given how far the Democrats have drifted to the right, it’s pretty astounding that they would trade in some pork for principle.”
Yet, as this insider also acknowledged, the Ashcroft vote shows how far from wielding power women, gays, and blacks really are today. “The bad news is that there was not a single Republican who feels any sense of debt to the civil rights community,” said this seasoned Washington activist. “One law review article by Lani Guinier [Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful nominee for assistant attorney general] was enough to scare off large numbers of Democrats, and here this man has a whole array of positions that are antithetical to American values, and you can’t get one Republican to say this is a problem.”
In fact, the Republican party’s liberal wing has ceased to exist, except on the local level. But what’s made it possible for the right to dominate American politics is the retreat of Democrats, who have come to regard their activist core as little more than a vote cow. This empty embrace is what drove many progressives to abandon Al Gore in the last election, and one can hardly fault their logic—only their sense of consequences. But the Ashcroft nomination represents more than the usual wink and nod. It is a stark portent of what could happen as the administration plays to the right while the Democrats play dead.
Thirty-seven years ago, flush with power and purpose, a Democratic majority in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It proved to be the most significant piece of social legislation since the New Deal. Now the Bush administration is positioning itself to unravel that act, by empowering religious groups to receive government money while discriminating in hiring and by challenging many practices that grew out of the 1964 law. Ashcroft will play a crucial role in this process, not just as a litigator and a spur to the Supreme Court, but as a key player in the selection of federal judges—and in many less visible ways. “There are hundreds of decisions that you never hear about,” says Aravosis. “That’s what worries me: the day-to-day destruction of civil rights and liberties.”
Some activists have lulled themselves into believing that they put Ashcroft in a position where he cannot push his issues without perjuring himself. But what are the chances of Democrats holding this man to his testimony when they colluded in the fiction that he isn’t a bigot? The retirement of this word from the lexicon of politics is an enormous blow to candid discourse, but what can you expect from a Senate whose majority leader is an honorary member of the softcore successor to the White Citizens Council? America has moved so far to the right that not even the victims of racism are willing to apply the R-word lest they be judged extreme. On the other hand, Ashcroft can get away with arguing that the South did not secede over “some perverted agenda”: that is, slavery.
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