The fight over Ashcroft

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune:

In the days after the Nov. 7 election, U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, a conservative Republican, was hailed by many liberals as a wise statesman. That was because Ashcroft, who had run for re-election, didn't contest his narrow loss to the ghost of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat who had been killed in a plane crash but whose name remained on the ballot.

Ashcroft's decision not to challenge the election outcome in court cleared the way for the appointment of Carnahan's widow to take his place. Bottom line: Ashcroft made it easy for Democrats to seize a critical 50th seat in the Senate.

Less than two months later, Ashcroft's new admirers are not so admiring. By choosing Ashcroft as his attorney general, George W. Bush has infuriated those who had hoped for a more moderate appointee to one of the most important Cabinet posts.

Liberals whose campaign of vilification led to the Senate's rejection of Robert Bork, a conservative nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, have Ashcroft in their sights.

Chief among his perceived flaws: his opposition to abortion and his successful battle to stop the confirmation of Ronnie White, an African-American from Missouri, to a federal judgeship.

That said, Ashcroft is likely to wind up running the Justice Department. He has strong credentials (including his law diploma from the University of Chicago) and, even in the eyes of many Democrats, no shortage of personal integrity. In the last 40 years, senators have rejected only one Cabinet nominee; that was in 1989, when Bush's father picked former Texas Sen. John Tower, an arrogant carouser, to be secretary of defense.

Ashcroft's opinion on abortion shouldn't matter any more than if he were strongly pro-choice. Though Bush is more moderate on the issue, he wasn't likely to name Gloria Steinem or Kate Michelman his attorney general. Ashcroft's sworn job will be to enforce federal abortion law, and follow policies set in the Oval Office.

Still, Ashcroft can't beef if senators ask him tough questions about the White case. Or his acceptance of an honorary degree from Bob Jones University. Or his opposition to Bill Clinton's nomination of Bill Lann Lee to head the civil rights division at Justice.

As Janet Reno has shown (from Waco to Wen Ho Lee), an attorney general has plenty of chances to wield power in foolish ways. The question facing the Senate is whether Ashcroft is committed to fully and fairly enforcing the laws of the land. From what is known, his critics will have a hard time showing that he is not.

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

President-elect George W. Bush repeatedly promised during his campaign that he would govern from the political middle. But his nomination late last week of outgoing Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general raises troubling questions about the sincerity of that promise.

If confirmed, as is likely, the Republican senator from Missouri will become the nation's highest law enforcement officer in January. His responsibilities will range widely, from civil rights and antitrust enforcement to oversight of the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He probably will also have strong influence on Bush's judicial nominations. The job comes with enormous legal and political clout as well as a national bully pulpit.

The attorney general's post is one of two in the Cabinet that Bush's conservative backers consider "must-have," the secretary of Health and Human Services (yet unannounced) being the other. With Ashcroft's nomination, they scored a huge win.

The 58-year-old politician is a devout Pentecostal Christian, as staunch an opponent of abortion and gun control as he is a supporter of the death penalty. He has a troubling record in the area of civil rights, and he's no conciliator. "Two things you find in the middle of the road," Ashcroft once said, are "a moderate and a dead skunk."

Such rigid views could present a real problem in the wake of a bruising presidential election, one that saw Bush barely win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, have indicated they won't oppose their colleague in his quest for the attorney general's office, but they promise tough questioning during his confirmation hearings. Those questions should fully explore Ashcroft's views on the issues he will face once in office.

Ashcroft led a nasty, partisan charge last year against the confirmation of a prominent, moderate black jurist, Ronnie White, to the federal bench. White's stinging loss in the Senate the first defeat for a federal judicial nominee in many years, following Ashcroft's absurd allegation that White was soft on crime has rightly angered many civil rights groups and should trouble all Americans. Ashcroft, though he did not oppose other black nominees, should expect aggressive questioning on why he blocked White's nomination.

When introduced last week by Bush, the Missourian promised that as attorney general he will enforce all the nation's laws. In his Senate confirmation hearings, Ashcroft must flesh out that vow on the record.

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