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On Day Two of the John Ashcroft hearings, Senator Pat Leahy--the Democrat temporarily chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee--asked George W. Bush's would-be Attorney General if he had blocked the nomination of businessman James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is gay. Ashcroft replied, "I did not." He had quashed the nomination, Ashcroft contended, because of "the totality of the record." Actually, at the time of the Hormel controversy, Ashcroft's remarks indicated that Hormel's sexual orientation was crucial to his decision ("He's been a leader in promoting a lifestyle.... And the kind of leadership he's exhibited there is likely to be offensive.") Leahy could have challenged the ex-senator's honesty. He could have demanded that Ashcroft cite a reason beyond "lifestyle" for his opposition. Leahy had Ashcroft in his sights, but he didn't pull the trigger.
That moment was telling. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that Democrats are bent on a so-called politics of personal destruction, Senate Democrats did not slam Ashcroft as hard as they could have. For example, they didn't query him about his meeting with a leader of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss whether Ashcroft could help an imprisoned CCC member accused of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrats permitted designated Interior Secretary Gale Norton to slip-slide through her confirmation hearing. When she testified that "there is beginning to be more of a consensus" that global warming is under way but that there is "still disagreement as to the causes and the long-term future" of global warming, no Democrat pounced on her for mischaracterizing the current consensus among scientists that global warming is human-induced and presents a threat.
For Ashcroft and Norton, the Democrats mounted hearings designed to slap the nominees but not to defeat them. Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, Richard Durbin and Joe Biden did question Ashcroft sharply. The testimony of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White reinforced charges that Ashcroft--who had assailed White as "procriminal"--had waged a dishonest, intemperate and unfair campaign against this barrier-breaking African-American jurist. But overall, the Democrats weren't really gunning for Ashcroft or Norton--which can be seen as an indicator of how they intend to behave as the opposition.
It may be that their leaders decided that these were battles that could not be won, so why go all out? Senator Russell Feingold, a progressive, announced that as a matter of principle a President should be accorded his nominees. Several other Democrats--like the conservative Zell Miller--signaled that they would vote for Ashcroft, and Norton drew even less visible opposition. Clearly, some Democratic senators were wary of being tagged as underminers of the much-ballyhooed bipartisanship. The hard reality: With the Senate split 50-50, a single Democratic Senator can undo his or her party's position by threatening to bolt. Faced with these two way-out nominations, Senate Democrats--despite being pressed by key constituencies, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus--could not maintain a united opposition.
After the Ashcroft hearings, leaders of the anti-Ashcroft campaign criticized the Democrats, in private, for their lack of fierce effectiveness. "The Democrats have to learn how to fight to win," one of the coalition leaders complained. "Trying to achieve fairness is great. But you also have to be willing to play hardball. You didn't have good cross-examination during the hearings." The Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee disappointed the enviros opposing Norton. "It was very frustrating," said an environmental lobbyist. "Bush sends up this extremist, and the Democrats did not push back--or even send a loud message that we don't want her screwing around with laws that protect the environment." But several forgive-and-forget Senate Democrats are not interested in a fight with Bush, and that will hobble any attempt on the part of Congressional Democrats to mount a coherent anti-Bush front. And where's the Democrats' alternative-to-Bush agenda? Congressional Democrats include those eager to cooperate with the President and also those who want to trounce the Filcher of Florida. Bush the "uniter" is so far doing well in dividing the Democrats.
But hold! Isn't it the demand of enlightened people that all within these borders have a right to work without being hassled by the INS or kindred state agency? You can argue whether Linda Chavez treated Marta Mercado, her sometime Guatemalan employee, well or badly, and that poor treatment might disqualify her as Labor Secretary. But the spectacle of Democrats like Senator Tom Daschle solemnly denouncing Chavez for giving work to an undocumented Latina was nauseating.
Here's Chavez, who has appalling views on almost every issue relevant to the job for which she was briefly nominated, and the Democrats finally home in on her for the one decent deed on her record, if you believe the testimony of Marta, to whom Chavez appears to have behaved well.
Chavez has been cruelly taken from them, but what an immense favor Bush/Cheney did the Democrats by putting up Ashcroft and Norton! It's hard to stir up liberal passions over Powell at the State Department or Rice as National Security Adviser, or even O'Neill at Treasury. How could you be worse than Madeleine Albright or Samuel Berger? And who cares about O'Neill, when the effective ruler of the economy is over at the Fed?
But with Ashcroft scheduled for the Justice Department there are rich political and fundraising opportunities for the Democrats, berating the Naderites, We told you so, and painting lurid scenarios of the Klan Grand Wizard taking up residence in the DOJ. Here comes the Beast: Ashcroft, the foe of choice; Ashcroft, the militia-symp; Aschcroft, the racist hero of the old Confederacy. What can you say for the guy, except that he's probably marginally to the left of Eminem, great white hope of the rap crowd and currently in line for four more Grammies.
But will Ashcroft be effectively worse than Attorney General Janet Reno? This time eight years ago she was four months away from incinerating the Branch Davidians at Waco and on the edge of a tenure that has seen her fervent support for the "war on drugs," a k a war on the poor, most especially blacks; her contributions to the crime bill of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996; the targeting of minority youth; her complaisance toward expansions in the power of the prosecutorial state against citizens; and onslaughts on the Bill of Rights? It's a tough act to follow.
The environmentalists see similar rich opportunity with Gale Norton, graduate of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an anti-environmental think tank based in Denver, Colorado, headed by James Watt, greatest fundraiser for environmental causes in our history. No doubt about it, Norton is scarcely nature's friend. Her dreams are of Exxon's Grand Canyon and Disney's Yosemite. But once again, we should retain our perspective.
Consider, for example, Bill Clinton's exit order, banning roads and logging across 58.5 million acres of public land. Then look at the exceptions: Clinton's ban excludes timber sales now in the pipeline, which can be grandfathered in over the next six years. Other huge loopholes include an OK for logging for "ecological reasons," like firebreaks and deer habitat. There's also an OK for roads for mining and grazing allotments, and for fire control. In all, the order envisages a less than 3 percent reduction of total timber sales in national forests, which isn't much.
If she's smart, Norton will reverse the order simply by choosing one of the other options offered in the environmental impact statement that formed the basis of Clinton's order.
There's likely to be a big fight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has just done Norton and the oil industry a big favor by advising Clinton that to designate ANWR a national monument would be "a meaningless gesture" that would invite the Republicans to reverse all such designations made in Clinton time. You can read this as a startlingly forthright admission that national-monument status doesn't mean much, which is true; also that Babbitt is as gutless as ever. To have made ANWR a national monument would have drawn a line in the sand, or in this case, the snow, a bit deeper, and made the forthcoming onslaught on ANWR a little tougher for the Bush/Cheney crowd.
What else can Norton do that Babbitt hasn't already set in motion? Not much. Last year Babbitt's Fish and Wildlife Service put a moratorium on the listing of endangered species, and he's smiled on the privatization of public assets through land trades, whereby timber corporations get old growth and we get the cut-over terrain. Salmon protection? The Clinton Administration has let the Republicans off the hook on that one, decreeing that the dams on the Snake River won't be breached. Oil leasing off the continental shelf? For Bush/Cheney it would be political suicide. Reagan tried and had to back off. Norton will go after the National Environmental Protection Act, but here again Babbitt and Gore paved the way, with their habitat conservation plans, which have ushered so many corporate foxes into the coop.
Over at EPA, Christine Todd Whitman may be bad, but she's no James Watt; and at USDA could anyone be worse than Dan Glickman, friend of factory farms and saboteur of organic standards?
So, all in all, the Bush/Cheney directorate has done a fine job of rallying the Democrats, just as the Democrats, with their weak-kneed surrender to the Florida putsch and talk of bipartisanship, have given ammunition to the radicals denouncing the two-party consensus. For the activists, there's plenty of opportunity. Militant green groups, including the reinvigorated Greenpeace, are fired up, and right here on the doorstep is the prospect of a national fight for microradio, whose future has been sabotaged by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB, with the complicity of that darling of the Democrats, NPR, shepherded through a legislative rider late last year that outlaws new low-power stations in most urban areas.
So we're back where we were in the dawn of Clinton time, with courageous people asserting their rights and defying corporations and the state. What else is new? Welcome to Bush/Cheney time. The basic map hasn't changed.
Many of George Bush's supporters say that his recent nominations of Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser and Rod Paige as Secretary of Education prove that he is serious about racial diversity. Moreover, his nomination of a Latino and two white women to his Cabinet suggests that compassionate conservatism boasts enough room for all sorts of minorities. But before we count the votes for Bush's celebrated--or is it calculated?--display of racial leadership, let's at least acknowledge that we may have run into some dimpled chads.
Powell's nomination is a no-brainer, which, as it turns out, may perfectly suit Bush's presidential profile. To take credit for nominating a national hero to extend his stellar record of public service is only a little better than taking credit for inventing the Internet. Powell's halo effect may redound to Bush, but his choice of Powell owes nothing to Bush's fundamental bearing as a racial statesman. Powell and Bush are at significant odds on crucial issues. Powell's vigorous support of affirmative action, his belief in a woman's right to choose and his advocacy for besieged urban children put him to the left of the Bush dogma. To be sure, Powell is no radical. His moderate racial principles are largely acceptable to many blacks because they're not bad for a guy who buys the Republican line, some of its hooks and not many of its sinkers. Unlike Congressman J.C. Watts, the black Republican from Oklahoma who'd just as soon fish all day with his conservative colleagues than cut the race bait. Indeed, Powell's beliefs run the same blush of racial centrism that coursed through the Clinton Administration over the past eight years. The difference is that such moderates, and a sprinkling of liberals, had plenty of company in the Clinton Administration. In a Bush Administration, Powell is, well, a hanging chad.
Of course, Powell's beliefs will have little substantive impact on his future boss's domestic policies, because he has been dispatched to foreign fields where Bush surely needs the help. So what looks like a plum for black folk may be a pit. True, no black person has ever served as Secretary of State. But once we get past the obligatory gratitude black folk are called on to display when conservative whites finally do something halfway decent, the fact is that Powell will have little influence on the public policies that may hamper black progress under a Bush Administration. Powell has not been nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services, so his input on welfare, for instance, is lost. Instead, if confirmed, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson will practice his widely praised variety of welfare reform, a policy that on both the local and national level has had a horrendous effect on millions of poor blacks. Neither is Powell slated to be the Attorney General, where he may choose the civil rights czar, who carves the policy groove on race in the Justice Department. Instead, that honor may fall to John Ashcroft, an ultraconservative whose opposition to black interests is destructive. An omen of things to come was glimpsed starkly in Ashcroft's contemptuous scuttling of the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for the federal bench. Not only is Powell's value to Bush on race largely symbolic, that symbolism will more than likely be used to cover policies that harm the overwhelming majority of black Americans who were never persuaded by Powell to join the party of Lincoln (Continentals).
Rice and Paige may be lesser-known political quantities, but they are nonetheless instructive of Bush's racial politics. Rice, the former Stanford provost and assistant national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, is not as vocal a supporter of affirmative action, preferring a lukewarm version of the policy that may comport well with Bush's nebulous "affirmative access." At Stanford, Rice was not nearly as aggressive as she might reasonably have been in recruiting black faculty, failing to match the efforts of equally conservative universities like Duke. And her record of advising the senior Bush on national security matters indicates that she was a blue-blood conservative in black face.
As for Paige, his my-way-or-the-highway methods have yielded mixed results for the predominantly black and Latino students in Houston, where he has served six years as superintendent of schools. A proponent of annual standardized tests, a measure heartily supported by Bush, Paige has overseen rising test scores while all but abandoning students who couldn't pass muster. Moreover, Paige supports the use of tax money to fund private education, a policy favored by Bush and many blacks but that could have deleterious effects on poor families. The lure of vouchers is seductive, but it fails to address the fact that there is hardly enough money available to make a real difference to those students whose parents are financially beleaguered.
With Rice's nomination, the point may be that a black can be just as staunch in spouting conservative foreign policy as the next wonk. With Paige, the point is that a black can promote the sort of educational policies that help some black folk while potentially harming a larger segment of the community. It is clear that such a state of affairs does not constitute racial progress. The irony is that Powell, Paige and Rice were chosen in part to prove an inclusiveness that is meaningless if their very presence comes at the expense of representing the interests of the majority of black folk, especially those poor and working-class folk who are vulnerable and largely invisible. The lesson the Republicans would have us learn is that not all blacks think alike, that we are no ideological monolith in liberal captivity. The real lesson may be that a black face does not translate into a progressive political presence that aids the bulk of black folk. Especially when that face must put a smile on repressive policies that hurt not just most blacks but those Americans committed to radical democracy. If that counts as racial progress, we need an immediate recount.
Linda Chavez's withdrawal as George W. Bush's nominee for Labor Secretary after mounting evidence that she violated the law by employing an illegal immigrant and then tried to hide the fact should embolden Democrats to mount vigorous challenges to Bush's other Cabinet nominees.
The most dangerous lesson that can be taken from the Chavez fiasco (see David Moberg, page 12) is the theory that Bush's Cabinet picks can be blocked only if they have failed to keep their personal affairs in order. Where does such a calculation leave a John Ashcroft, Bush's archconservative choice for Attorney General? By all accounts, Ashcroft behaved like a gentleman while a member of the exclusive club that is the US Senate. Even some progressive Democrats, like Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone, have expressed personal regard for their former colleague and intimated that their experience could influence them to approve his nomination.
But the fact that Ashcroft or Gale Norton or Ann Veneman might be good company is not sufficient qualification for Senate approval. Policies ought to matter more than personalities. In the administration of a President who appears to lack interest in the details of governing, Cabinet secretaries will wield immense power and could vigorously push right-wing policies that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose.
The Constitution does not require senators to rubber-stamp the Cabinet nominations of Presidents elected under normal circumstances, let alone those who are to be sworn in under a cloud of illegitimacy. Senators, especially Democratic senators who claim to stand in principled opposition to Bush's policies, have a responsibility to assure that positions of public trust are not filled by a wrecking crew bent on destroying government's ability to do good for any but the wealthiest Republicans. They must not shirk that responsibility.
In the end, Linda Chavez undid her own nomination through her disingenuousness. Bush's first nominee as Labor Secretary withdrew after a storm of publicity about her relationship with a Guatemalan woman who was illegally in the United States and doing chores at Chavez's home while living with Chavez and being given money by her.
Chavez apparently broke federal laws in her actions, but if providing a room and money to Marta Mercado had really been a humanitarian act and not a way of getting housework done on the cheap, Chavez might have survived a tough fight. But she was not upfront about her past with members of the Bush transition team, and they essentially abandoned her.
Chavez was right to decry the "politics of personal destruction," which focuses on finding personal shortcomings and minor legal violations to undermine political figures, but she was a hypocrite in the extreme in her invocation of that charge. Few people have engaged in such political blood sport with as much energy as Chavez, who blasted Clinton's 1993 nominee Zoë Baird for having employed an immigrant; who engaged in barely concealed race-baiting and gay-baiting against her 1986 Maryland Senate race opponent, Barbara Mikulski; and who regularly attacked even the most modest and established regulations of the economy, like the minimum wage, as "Marxist."
The real reason that Linda Chavez should have been defeated--or withdrawn, or never nominated--is that she was unfit for the job by virtue of her steadfast and ardent opposition to the laws that she would have been charged with enforcing.
She held various Democratic policy jobs in the early 1970s before taking a job as an assistant to American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker in 1977. As part of a small but influential labor network of hawkish Social Democrats, she shared Shanker's opposition to most affirmative action, and she recruited conservatives such as William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert Bork to write for the teachers' magazine. In the years since, she has continued to fight against affirmative action. But the Labor Secretary is responsible for monitoring affirmative action compliance by federal contractors, who employ about 22 percent of the civilian labor force.
Chavez opposed increasing the minimum wage even when it was at a postwar record low, opposed family and medical leave, derided the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, opposed measures to eliminate inequitable pay distinctions and endorsed employer discrimination against workers who refuse overtime. And she has attacked efforts of workers, such as doctors, to organize unions.
Chavez tried to cloak herself in humanitarian robes as she withdrew, pulling together personal testimonials of individuals, especially poor immigrants, whom she had helped, but as Labor Secretary, with the policies she advocated, she would have done immense damage to millions of workers, especially poor immigrants, minorities and women. This appears to be the essence of "compassionate conservatism"--handouts for a few individuals, the boot for the vast majority.
Unfortunately, Chavez's departure, however welcome, is only a minor victory. By appointing her, Bush made it clear that his administration will be vigorously antilabor. As unions have strengthened their political operations in the past three election cycles, Republican and conservative efforts to undermine unions have escalated.
Despite the dramatic 1998 failure in California of the "paycheck protection" initiative, which would have required prior written approval of union political expenditures by each member, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney has already signaled that the Bush administration will push for similar federal legislation. There are fears that Bush may either temporarily suspend or even try to overturn new ergonomics regulations for better-designed workplaces, just implemented after a ten-year battle, and that his administration may try to revive the 1996 political fundraising scandal involving former Teamsters leaders as a tool to attack the Democrats and the AFL-CIO, especially secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka. (The presence of two current Teamsters officials on the Bush labor transition team--the only unionists on a list of corporations, trade groups and antilabor law firms--gives weight to these worries.)
Republicans in Congress have also made it clear that they want to overturn current federal regulations requiring overtime pay for more than forty hours of work in a week, to open the door to now-outlawed company-controlled "unions" (through the TEAM Act), to weaken enforcement of workplace health and safety regulations, and to give employers greater latitude in classifying workers as independent contractors, making it easier for employers to abuse and underpay workers, who are in turn denied the right to organize. The latter two initiatives were pet projects of former Missouri Representative James Talent, who was widely mentioned as a possible replacement for Chavez.
It seems, from the names mentioned, that the next Bush choice as Labor Secretary might be easier to get approved by the Senate but will be no more sympathetic to the needs of workers or the legitimate role of unions in American society. The fight over Chavez, which the AFL-CIO was preparing to launch just as she pulled out, is only the beginning of what promises to be intense combat in the years to come.
This Racicot seemed like Bush's sort of guy:
Pro-life, he thought that killers ought to fry.
Though right-wing to the core in many ways,
He was, the Christian right said, soft on gays.
They told Bush that he ought to give the nod
To Ashcroft, who believes he speaks for God.
"OK," said Bush. Though not perhaps so glad, he
Bowed quickly to the wackos, like his daddy--
Yes, like the Bush to whom we bid adieu.
We now know what we have here: Lapdog II.
It was one of those odd little paragraphs that leap out at you, so filled with unexpected images it was. "What would Al Sharpton do if Bush calls him?" inquired Peter Noel in a recent issue of the Village Voice. Sharpton's reply was pure deadpan: "I would not meet with Bush alone.... There has to be an agenda that the black collective agrees with. Clearly, I'm not looking to be part of the Bush administration."
It was inspiring to know that Al Sharpton had seriously thought about what to do if Bush should call him. It was inspiring because I figure there's at least as much chance of Bush calling me as Sharpton. So if the press is interviewing him about such prospects, then I should be prepared.
First of all, the Bush team needs me. I don't know how to say this gently, because I know how hard they tried, but most of us in the black community agree that Sister Condoleezza and Brother Colin do not a rainbow coalition make. And since John Ashcroft is backed by the Christian Coalition and Bob Jones University, I know that Bush knows that the fair and unifying thing to do now would be to make a radical lefty critical race theorist like me the head of the civil rights division. Yes, me--the frizzy-haired feminist alternative to Al Sharpton. I offer myself up as Bush's own personal Lani Guinier.
Since we're looking ahead here, I must confess that, like Sharpton, I wouldn't meet with Bush alone. Not that I worry about becoming the next Monica Lewinsky or anything, but all in all, I'd want witnesses. The kind of witnesses I'll bet Donald Rumsfeld wishes he had to explain those tapes in the National Archives. The ones in which he agrees with Nixon that African blacks are "just out of the trees." Rumsfeld, who's heard saying, "That's right," "I know" and "That's for sure," now has no better excuse to fall back upon except that he was "acknowledging," not agreeing with, Nixon.
But with me, a Bush White House would never have to worry about such embarrassing moments, because on each and every tape for posterity you'd hear me, loud and clear, exclaiming, "Say what?" and "You've got to be kidding!" You'd hear me reciting the Emancipation Proclamation, telling people about the Reconstruction Amendments, chanting passages from international conventions against the death penalty and pointing out Greece on the map.
What of my broader political agenda, you may well ask. Unlike Al Sharpton, I'm not ambitious enough to come up with something with which a presumed "black collective" might entirely agree. Nevertheless, since I was among the 92 percent of blacks who collectively voted Democratic, I'm confident that I'll be a lot closer to that goal than Republican "civil rights activists" like Abigail Thernstrom.
Like Laura Bush, I'm also a great believer in literacy. So when Lynne Cheney rises up to decry the decadent state of the arts in America, I'll help out by making sure the National Archives has plenty of copies of that lusty lesbian love story she published before Dick gave her what must have been a really, really good spanking. When librarians ban Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I'll be sure to suggest that they try replacing it with the 1853 edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar--that children's book Bush says he so enjoyed reading as a child, but that some bitter liberals insist wasn't published until the year he graduated from college.
When John Ashcroft waxes nostalgic about the good old days of the Confederacy when "the races" lived together in honeyed harmony, I'll help set up the Sally Hemings Memorial Genealogical Resource Center so that all of us black folk who were so much happier then can find our way back to our beloved masters. I sincerely look forward to homesteading my own little cabin-in-the-garage, listening to the chilluns tell the neighbors how like family we all are. If the Missus wants to give me a little pocket money, and if I freely choose to do a few small chores like plowing the back forty, then isn't that precisely the utopian arrangement that former Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez, referring to the hospitality she bestowed upon a former slave of her own, described as "an act of charity and compassion"? Indeed, I foresee a mass migration of freedom-weary blacks streaming back to Tara to live with our good white cousins who have been waiting all these years for us to see that home is where the DNA says it is.
Moreover, when failed nominee Chavez continues to attack labor unions for interfering with such good intentions from her post at the Center for Equal Opportunity, I will see to it that she becomes a global role model of free enterprise, and on prime time. I'm pretty sure I could interest Fox in a program called Survivor Too. I see Ms. Chavez and the entire cast of characters of her think tank being transported to a remote tenement building in South Central Los Angeles. There they would have to learn to catch and broil rats, thatch their own roofs, find an open gas station when the toilets overflow and commute to their jobs in Washington, DC, by public transportation. To make it interesting, I suppose we could jack up the stakes with a Wolof-only language requirement. Each week, we the American public would be allowed to call in our votes and kick one resident out onto the street, where, dressed only in skimpy rat-skin jerkins, they would be consigned to begging for food on the mean streets of the financial district. If Chavez gets to Washington within one year of Inauguration Day, she gets that Cabinet post after all.
Finally, when Tommy Thompson succeeds in getting a federal ban on abortion and does away with welfare as we know it, I pledge to resurrect Jonathan Swift's modest proposal that the nation's Truly Deserving Rich round out their diets by dining on the plump babies of the Truly Undeserving Poor.
A baby in every pot, a contented ex-slave in every garage. I sit by the phone, waiting to serve.
Some reasons (personal and political) for applauding Colin Powell's new appointment.
It all began in the heat of the summer of 1940. Hitler was at his peak in Europe. France had been defeated.
In 1996, Gore Vidal narrated his debacle defending the programs he wrote for the History Channel, which dealt with on the imperial aspects latent in the American presidency, to a panel of corporate media.
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