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The real reason that Linda Chavez should have been defeated--or withdrawn, or never nominated--is that she was unfit for the job by virtue of her steadfast and ardent opposition to the laws that she would have been charged with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.
The fierce farm crisis that is ravaging rural America garnered scant attention during the 2000 presidential campaign, so it came as no surprise that President-elect George W. Bush's nominaton of Ann Veneman for the post of Agriculture Secretary received far less attention than those of several others. Yet, because of the broad authority she would be handed and because of her extreme politics, Veneman merits every bit as much scrutiny as that directed at Bush's more high-profile appointments. Veneman's track record leaves little doubt that if confirmed she will use her position as head of a powerful agency with 100,000 employees, an $82 billion budget and responsibility for implementing federal farm policy, protecting food safety and defending public lands, to advance what farm activist Mark Ritchie describes as "strictly pro-agribusiness, pro-pesticide company, pro-pharmaceutical company positions."
As a key member of the Reagan and Bush farm teams, as former California Governor Pete Wilson's Food and Agriculture Department director, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush, Veneman has rarely missed an opportunity to advance the interests of food-production and -processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms by huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that in 1994 launched the first genetically engineered food, and she declared last year that "we simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology."
With Veneman's encouragement, California developed an increasingly conglomerated, big-farm, chemically enhanced version of food production that Iowa Farmers Union president John Whitaker describes as "an entirely different face of agriculture" from that practiced or desired by most working farmers. "I don't want to see that face transferred to Iowa," says Whitaker. But with Veneman at the reins of the USDA as Congress prepares to rewrite the dismally flawed Freedom to Farm Act, the transfer would likely be unavoidable.
Veneman would not merely be hustling to deliver for Bush's corporate contributors on domestic farm policy and public-land-use issues; she'd also be working for them on the international stage. A militant free-trader, Veneman helped negotiate the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which led to the World Trade Organization) and NAFTA. Even as family farmers were marching in Seattle to protest WTO interference with agricultural supports and food-safety standards, Veneman was there to tell the WTO to be more aggressive in removing so-called technical barriers to trade. So determined is Veneman to advance the free-trade agenda that Bush transition-team aides briefly considered her as a candidate for the position of US Trade Representative.
Veneman "seems to be coming in with the notion that her job is to be as extreme as possible in parroting the agribusiness line," says Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The problem is that that line is completely out of sync with what farmers want, what consumers want and what we know to be scientifically, ecologically and economically right."
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.
House GOP whip Tom DeLay will do his best to pull the President to the right.
The coronation of Colin Powell will probably not be interrupted by any of the specific questions about his mediocre and sometimes sinister past that were so well phrased by David Corn ["Questions for Powell," January 8/15]. The political correctness of the nomination, in both its "rainbow" and "bipartisan" aspects, will see to that. Powell has often defined himself as "a fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which also happens to be the core identity of the Washington press corps. Set against this, what is the odd war crime, or cover-up of same, or deception of a gullible Congress? Time to move on.
Following Vice President Al Gore's concession, President-elect Bush announced: "I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation. The President of the United States is the President of every single American, of every race and every background." It was an appropriate speech delivered from the Democratic-controlled Texas House chambers. Referring to the Texas House as "a home to bipartisan cooperation," Bush added, "Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent."
But who are George Bush's bipartisan Democrats?
Texas State Representative Paul Sadler, a Democrat, told the New York Times that Bush "didn't invent bipartisanship in Texas." It "kind of developed over the years because of the nature of the system." Nature of the system? What system? Essentially it is the same "system" around which the rest of the Southern Democratic Party developed.
The Southern Democratic Party was the party of slavery. Conservative Democrats were the Confederates during the Civil War. Democrats either were, or cooperated with, the KKK in resisting Reconstruction. Following Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), conservative Democrats practiced Jim Crow--separate and unequal. And after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), conservative Southern Democrats were the prime resisters of desegregation.
After Brown and the civil rights evolution of the 1960s, and the application of Goldwater's 1964 and Nixon's 1968 "Southern strategy," Southern white males especially began to leave the national Democratic Party in significant numbers. Republicans began to appeal to them with a series of racial themes and code words: "conservatism" during the civil rights struggles in 1964, "law and order" after the riots of 1967-68, "antibusing" in 1972, "welfare queen" in 1980, "Willie Horton" in 1988 and "compassionate conservatism" in 2000. Democrats also played this game: Carter's "ethnic purity" misstep in 1976 almost got him into serious trouble with the party's base; Bill Clinton used "Sister Souljah," and Al Gore emphasized crime ("blanket America in blue")--Democratic Southerners all. And all, Republicans and Democrats alike, are from the same system. Clinton redefined the Democratic Party away from the "special interests" of blacks--symbolized by Jesse L. Jackson Sr.--by politically manipulating a rapper. Because of Jackson's tireless pursuit of racial justice, and because he's a strong and highly visible Democrat, Republicans are now attempting to define and identify him as the symbol of the Democratic Party.
Taking a page from ultraconservative Ronald Reagan--who often referred favorably to the liberal FDR--Bush quoted the ideological founder of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson, a Virginian, was also the author of a Kentucky resolution and conservative theory of Southern resistance called "nullification," and his Democratic partner, James Madison, developed the theory of "interposition." Both concepts were forms of Southern resistance--first, resistance to ending slavery, and later to ending Jim Crow segregation. Jefferson also provided the ideological foundation for the concept of "local control"--the stepchild of "states' rights." Bull Connor, Jim Clark, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus and George Wallace were all the products of this "system" and were Democratic advocates of states' rights, local control and an antifederal ideology of less government, lower taxes and a strong military.
It is this legacy of conservative Southern Democrats that created the "bipartisan system" that State Representative Paul Sadler referred to. It is this legacy of conservative Southern Democrats in Congress with which President-elect Bush intends to work. But the President-elect's problem of governing all of the people cannot be satisfied merely by building bridges to essentially conservative Southern Blue Dog, Yellow Dog, New Dog or DLC Dog Democrats. These conservative dogs already support him. His problem will be in reaching out and building bridges to liberals and progressives who feel like they've been treated like dogs, who represent the dogs who have been left out in the cold and put in the doghouse by a bipartisan coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, this is the bipartisan pack that consistently bites us.
This conservative bipartisan coalition is generally for denying a woman's right to choose, supports charitable choice and violates the Constitution's mandate of church and state separation by attempting to put parochial prayers and the Ten Commandments in public schools. Out of this bipartisan "system" comes the privatization movement--public vouchers for private schools, privatizing all or part of Social Security, privatizing healthcare through medical savings accounts and much more.
It is this conservative bipartisan coalition that allows Ralph Nader to say that we have one corporate party with two different names. If Democrats go down this bipartisan path it will only strengthen Nader and the Greens for 2002 and 2004. The move down that path has already been aided by Democrats: In 1992 a conservative Democrat, Bill Clinton, selected an even more conservative running mate, Al Gore, who in 2000 selected an even more conservative running mate, Joseph Lieberman. By helping to shift the Democratic Party and the country further right, a very conservative George W. Bush could select an ultraconservative Dick Cheney as his running mate--and win.
The heart and soul of this conservative bipartisan coalition is the South, though by no means do all white Southerners regard themselves as part of it. Most Southern Democratic elected officials would be Republicans above the Mason-Dixon line, and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, for example, could not be elected south of the Mason-Dixon line in either party. She would be seen as too liberal, and her views would be considered traitorous to Southern heritage, traditions and values.
More than half of all African-Americans still live in the former Confederacy, and nationally they voted 92 percent for Gore. Yet the entire body of Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are all white men. While Bush got only 8 percent of the African-American vote, Democrats have no visible elected African-American Congressional leaders who compare to the Republican exceptions of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
This system is what President Lyndon Johnson understood on August 6, 1965, when he signed the Voting Rights Act and afterward said privately that national Democrats had probably lost the South for at least a quarter-century. He understood the system that produced Southern politics and the bipartisan white coalition that drove it. His insight has now come home to roost big-time in the 2000 election. Bush won the old Confederacy and the rural states of the West, which have a similar political philosophy--plus Indiana, Ohio and New Hampshire. Gore won the old Union states of the North and Northeast, plus New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, which are more in harmony with national Democratic policies.
This system of bipartisan cooperation, social and economic conservatism, and individualistic, personalistic and pietistic religion is rooted in a region that imposes the highest number of death penalties and has the highest crime in the country, the poorest schools, the worst healthcare and housing, the greatest environmental degradation and the greatest poverty--and this conservative Southern system sustains it and is increasingly leading and influencing the nation. As State Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, said, "Even if something is bipartisan, it still often doesn't solve the problems of certain groups of people in Texas. They would be people who don't have health insurance, working families, the vulnerable in our society."
The South, and America, need a progressive bipartisan economic coalition to fight for better jobs and job training, healthcare, affordable housing and a good educational system--for all Americans. However, that is not the agenda of Bush and his Democrats.
John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General is the first installment on George W. Bush's enormous political debt to the radical right. Remember back in early February when Bush's campaign for the Republican nomination was on the ropes? John McCain had beaten him badly in New Hampshire and had just broken through Bush's attempt to keep him off the New York State primary ballot. The McCain campaign was on fire in South Carolina, and the so-called Bush firewall in Michigan was collapsing. A loss in South Carolina would have all but ended the Bush campaign. A shaken Bush did what he had to in order to win there--he sold his soul at Bob Jones University. The rumor was that he made a Faustian bargain with the radical right to give them the Justice Department and the federal judiciary if they would save his candidacy. Apparently it worked. Right-wing religious fundamentalists defeated McCain in South Carolina and provided the shock troops to derail him in Republican-only "closed primary" states, where McCain was cut off from his natural constituency.
After Bush secured the nomination, he seemed to signal his acceptance of the deal by praising Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The radical right responded with a surge of support and, more important, with the gift of silence spared Bush from having to acknowledge his debt. Five members of the Supreme Court, including Scalia and Thomas, sealed the deal by anointing Bush as President-elect without the formality of his winning the election. Now the debt to the Christian right has come due.
Ordinarily, Presidents have the right to use Cabinet nominations to pay political debts. If Gore had not only won the most votes but had actually been allowed to become President, organized labor and the civil rights movement would now be lining up to collect their debts. In an ordinary presidential election, the winner enjoys the right to call the shots on policy as the political surrogate for the electoral majority. Thus, if this were an ordinary election it would be wrong to oppose John Ashcroft's nomination on political grounds. But Bush didn't win an electoral majority. He lost the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. He may have lost the Electoral College as well, obtaining Florida's crucial twenty-five electoral votes through a Supreme Court opinion that prevented an accurate vote count.
Don't get me wrong. George W. Bush is the President-elect. Respect for the rule of law requires us to follow the Supreme Court's ruling imposing Bush on the nation. But a President-elect who has been rejected by the majority of voters, and who may be taking office only because the Supreme Court refused to permit all the ballots to be counted in Florida, has no automatic right to saddle us with an extremist Attorney General who has just been rejected by the voters of his own state and who is pledged to wage war on behalf of a right-wing ideology that has been firmly rejected by most Americans.
Democratic senators who would ordinarily be inclined to allow the President-elect to form his Cabinet without opposition should not hesitate to oppose Ashcroft's nomination. The radical right hasn't earned control of the Justice Department, or the right to pick federal judges in the image of Scalia or Thomas. What President-elect Bush is entitled to from all Americans is respect for his office and cooperation in attempting to form and administer a centrist government. But there is no duty to cooperate in forming an extremist government. That is why the Democrats must use their "earned" 50-50 split in the new Senate to block the Ashcroft nomination. Not because Ashcroft is a bad man. He is, by all accounts, a decent man. Not because Ashcroft is a racist. He is, apparently, free from overt racial bias. But because he stands for terrible policies that would strike at the core of the American consensus. He stands for denying women freedom of choice. Unlike many principled foes of abortion, however, Ashcroft's reverence for human life does not prevent him from being an enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment. He stands for weakening the civil rights laws. He stands for eroding the wall between church and state. He stands for more censorship of free speech.
For once, let's have a vigorously contested confirmation hearing on Ashcroft that doesn't spiral down to character assassination. This is not about Ashcroft's competence. This is not about his honesty or his decency. It's about his politics--and whether George W. Bush has the right to impose the agenda of the radical right on a nation that has rejected it. If there is an iota of courage left in the forty-one Democratic senators it would take to sustain a filibuster, they'll rise up and say to President-elect Bush: We will not cosign the payment of your debt to the radical right by surrendering the Justice Department and the federal courts. The price for the nation is just too high.
The danger: He might sell the idea, and his agenda, with the help of a few Democrats.
Just how bad an Attorney General would John Ashcroft be? And is his nomination worth fighting? To answer the first question, talk to those who have experienced Ashcroft up close and personal. Like Harriet Woods, Missouri's lieutenant governor during the first of Ashcroft's two terms as that state's chief executive: She calls him "a disaster for minorities and for women." Or like retired Missouri Supreme Court Judge Charles Blackmar. Blackmar--a Republican appointee--accused Senator Ashcroft of "tampering with the judiciary" by blocking the federal court nomination of the amply qualified Missouri judge Ronnie White. Ashcroft opposed Judge White, an African-American, on the ostensible grounds that he voted against too many death sentences, leading Blackmar to this pungent assessment of the philosophy guiding Bush's chief law officer in the the crucial job of appointing federal judges: "The senator seems to take the attitude that any deviation is suspect, liberal, activist."
Ashcroft's sense of what constitutes "deviation" is broad even by the standards of the right, and his hard-line opposition to abortion isn't the half of it. The list of things Ashcroft is on record opposing is a catalogue of American social progress: contraception, school desegregation, solar energy, government assistance for woman- and minority-owned businesses, fuel efficiency standards for cars, workplace-discrimination protection for homosexuals, campaign finance reform and the nuclear test ban treaty. As governor, he even prohibited over-the-candy-counter sale of bonbons with liqueur centers.
It is African-Americans who will first take it on the chin from an Ashcroft Justice Department. As Missouri attorney general in the 1970s, Ashcroft initially honored the moderate, integrationist legacy of his mentor and predecessor, John Danforth. But he soon learned the value of playing hard-line race politics, fighting tooth and nail against desegregation of the massively unequal schools in Kansas City and St. Louis all the way to the US Supreme Court and spurning every attempt at an out-of-court settlement. Ashcroft won a tough GOP primary for governor in 1984 with attack ads accusing his opponent of being soft on desegregation. In the words of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page, he has "built a career out of opposing school desegregation...and opposing African-Americans for public office."
Reports have it that Bush's first favorite for AG was the more moderate Governor Marc Racicot of Montana--who, the story goes, was shot down by the far right. That creative spin control allows the administration-elect to play to both its flanks--deferring to the right with the nomination while assuaging moderates with the fiction that this nomination doesn't reflect Bush's deepest convictions. In fact, Ashcroft's nomination embodies one of the fundamental lessons of the first George Bush Administration: that the justice system is the arena that counts for right-wing patronage. The permanent elite of Republican technocrats like Donald Rumsfeld can have the run of the store as long as Justice turns out a steady stream of antiabortion briefs and far-right judge nominees.
Watch for a confirmation strategy that echoes fellow Danforth protégé Clarence Thomas in 1991, beginning with Ashcroft lobbying individual senators, followed by a confirmation narrative emphasizing Ashcroft's childhood--how his minister father befriended black missionaries--over the substance of Ashcroft's record as segregationist and antichoice absolutist. Once again, leading the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats will be Joe Biden, whose vanity and strategic incompetence contributed mightily to Thomas's narrow confirmation. Biden, reprising his fatal 1991 indecision, has declared he is "inclined" to support Ashcroft.
So is this a nomination worth fighting? Other Bush Cabinet nominees also pose direct threats to specific constituencies, but there is real urgency to laying down a marker on Ashcroft. The threat his nomination poses cuts across constituencies and issues, and the stakes are every bit as high as in the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination fights. The Justice Department has expanded its authority as has no other agency in recent years. Through appointments to the federal bench, Supreme Court arguments and priorities, the appointment of US Attorneys and the enforcement of civil rights and antitrust law, any Attorney General can change the country in profound ways. All the more so with Ashcroft: not just because of his regressive constitutional views but because Bush appears likely to vest more power in his advisers than any President in memory.
And this is a fight that is winnable, despite Biden's early bumbling and the irrelevant conventional wisdom that the Senate will defer to one of its own. (Remember John Tower, whose Senate record could not rescue his nomination as Bush Senior's Defense Secretary?) The Clinton impeachment hearings and trial showed repeatedly that most Americans have little patience with moral extremists like Ashcroft, and it shouldn't take much to convince a broad segment of the public that he is out of touch. Civil liberties and corporate regulation have a currency and a constituency they lacked when public-interest groups beat Bork in 1986. With public support for the death penalty falling, with even GOP governors questioning the wisdom of the drug war, with Republican Supreme Court Justices reaffirming Roe v. Wade and a Republican Congress softening the Cuba embargo, Ashcroft looks like a dinosaur, the anachronistic spawn of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.
Besides, whatever the outcome, a fight against Ashcroft will generate rather than expend political capital for civil rights and civil liberties advocates. Democrats gained from the Bork and Thomas confirmation fights as the public became educated about the real agenda of conservatives and as Beltway-bound liberal lobbies reconnected to grassroots constituencies. There is every reason to think Ashcroft could be defeated--and even if he is not, fighting his confirmation could lay the foundation for a new coalition, a shadow Justice Department that will dog the Bush Administration's every judicial nomination and every reversal of civil rights. This is no time to roll over.