In our retrograde era, "the personal is political" might better be put "politics sure messes up progressive lives." This past December, just after the Supreme Court completed the electoral coup that imposed the Bush presidency upon us, I spent a miserable snowy afternoon in my Chicago-area university office trying to winnow down a set of readings for a graduate seminar on race, ethnicity and nationalism. Glumly predicting the sorts of Cabinet appointees and White House policies that have indeed come to pass in the weeks since, I found myself unable to pare down the list. Instead, mindful of the racist renaissance we are likely in for in the coming years--not that Clinton's two terms, characterized by the police-state crime bill and the evisceration of AFDC, were exactly models of antiracist governing--I shoveled back in masses of old Bell Curve-era readings on New Right cultural politics.
The Talmudic reading load imposed by a punctilious and politically depressed lefty professor on hapless grad students is, of course, the least of the burdens of newly enhanced conservative rule. But as we attempt to assess and contest the worsened life conditions, from Colombia to Cairo to Kazakhstan to California, about to be produced by Bush Administration policies, we need new analytic tools to help us envision the meanings of race and ethnicity in shifting national and global political economy. And Claire Kim's fresh study, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City, offers precisely such tools.
Bitter Fruit is based on a meticulous account of the 1990-91 black-led "Red Apple" boycott of two Korean-run produce stores--Family Red Apple and Church Fruits--in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a boycott that arose in response to allegations that Family Red Apple's store manager, Bong Ok Jang, beat an older Haitian woman customer, Ghiselaine Felissaint, during an argument at the cash register. But Kim, a younger politics and ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, uses that narrative to reframe the ways in which even we progressives, influenced by public culture despite our best efforts, tend to see the history and contemporary realities of race, immigration, representation, politics and poverty in American cities. Most political, ethnographic or other analyses of urban lives--with key exceptions in works like Brett Williams's Upscaling Downtown and Dwight Conquergood's "Life in Big Red"--focus on only one population, whether black street vendors or Latina or Chinese sweatshop workers. One of Kim's strengths, making her the Anna Deavere Smith of the poli-sci set, is her careful consideration, through extensive interviewing, of the voices of all the players in the Red Apple imbroglio--Haitian immigrants and longer-term residents, black American political activists and elected officials, Korean merchants and community politicians of different generations, the various mainstream and alternative media--and her clearheaded recognition of their differential access to power and resources.
This is the key to the issue and the real innovation in Kim's work. She lays out for us the "conventional wisdom" about black/Korean conflict:
Shut out of the mainstream economy by historical discrimination and hit hard by recent global economic changes, urban-dwelling Blacks are frustrated and angry. Enter Korean immigrants, who open stores in poor black neighborhoods and rapidly achieve economic success by virtue of their hard work and thriftiness.... Blacks lash out at them, irrationally venting their accumulated frustrations on this proximate, vulnerable, and racially distinct target. Korean immigrants...simply get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kim then disassembles this "racial scapegoating" narrative for us. She notes that "historical discrimination, economic competition, Black rage, immigrant dreams and prosperity" are all genuine phenomena but that this formulation "isolates these features and rips them out of the overall context of how racial power operates in America." Racial power, in Kim's analysis, is linked to racial ordering, the economic and ideological process through which populations are evaluated relative to one another. These constructions rely not on notions of ongoing white conspiracy or intentionality but on the reproduction of political-economic structures and discursive frames, the very ways in which we talk about the subject. Racial power "finds concrete expression in a wide variety of...processes that tend cumulatively to perpetuate White dominance over non-Whites. Putatively impersonal forces such as global restructuring and deindustrialization are in fact mediated by racial power so that Whites systematically accrue greater benefits from and suffer fewer burdens from these developments than do non-Whites." The racial scapegoating story turns out, then, to veil the "'bitter fruit' of deeply entrenched patterns of racial power in contemporary American society."
Central to contemporary American racial ordering are the empirically false and mutually interdependent constructs depicting a feckless and violent black and brown urban underclass and a hardworking, bootstrapping Asian "model minority." The model-minority myth presents "Asian Americans as culturally superior to Blacks and yet culturally distinct from Whites and detached from politics." As the American economy improved over the 1990s, as crime plummeted because of improved economic prospects, demographic transition, mass imprisonment and rising youth common sense, and as the impoverished were thrown off public assistance without much public outcry, we have heard less and less about the dangerous minority poor who have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. (Given the bear market and other recent indicators, though, watch this space.)
Representations of Asian model-minority behavior, though, dating from the 1960s, continue strong in mass media. Kim traces the origin of model-minority ideology to the use of Asian-American "success" stories--with mom-and-pop stores in the forefront--"as an explicit rebuke to Blacks involved in collective demand making of one kind or another." "Consider the two myths as mirror images," Kim invites us:
The underclass is lazy, undisciplined, lacking in family values, criminally inclined, unable to defer gratification, deviant, dependent, and prone to dropping out; the model minority is diligent, disciplined, possessed of strong family values, respectful of authority, thrifty, moral, self-sufficient, and committed to education. Whites--the unspoken overclass to the underclass and majority to the model minority--are factored out of the picture as if they were neutral, colorblind, wholly disinterested observers.
This triangulated racial ordering helps to rationalize common-sense "colorblind talk" that serves to mask both white power and the innately relational character of all racial systems.
Providing clear empirical proof of the bankruptcy of this vision, Kim locates both blacks and Koreans in the historical political economy of New York City. She uses other scholars' work to establish the persistent and unique residential segregation of black populations--so extreme, both locally and nationally, that Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton label it "American apartheid"--and reprises the record of brutal and deadly actions by outer-borough whites against "trespassing" blacks throughout the 1980s. She uses sociologist Roger Waldinger's research to demonstrate the ways in which blacks have been excluded from the changing urban occupational "ethnic queue." Even their relative success in public-sector jobs in the 1970s, the result of federal antidiscrimination legislation, tripped them up when the public/private balance shifted and they lacked networks and resources to gain access to burgeoning business opportunities.
Kim cites abundant evidence that New York employers, like those elsewhere in the United States, operate on the basis of "old-fashioned racism--or discrimination based on the construction of Blacks (especially Black men) as undesirable (lazy, dishonest, unreliable) employees." Even the conservative business newspaper Crain's New York Business lamented in 1989 that "being black reduces the prospects for entrance and advancement in nearly every sector that defines the economic life of the city."
The cumulative national effects of residential segregation and systematic credit discrimination, in addition to specifically regional oppression (for example, Koch administration refusal to grant city contracts to nonwhites), explain both Afro-Americans' generally low levels of self-employment and the particularly extreme paucity of black small businesses in New York. The per capita rates in Los Angeles, for example, are 2.5 times as high.As a result of combined governmental and private-sector actions, by the late 1980s "increasing rates of overall and extreme poverty, deepening income inequalities, and persistently low labor-force participation rates shaped the lives of most Black New Yorkers."
Haitian migrants to the United States, and New York specifically, beginning with 1960s waves of anti-Duvalier activists fleeing certain death, were immediately racialized as black and subjected to the same discriminatory treatment, with two additions. In the first place, blackness "is a source of great pride" in the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and Haitians had to come to terms with its often degraded American status. Then, as black foreigners began arriving in the 1970s in larger numbers, and with the rise of the AIDS crisis, Haitians were further coded as dirty, diseased and dangerous.
In this overall context of extreme antiblack racism, finally, Kim documents how ordinary patterns of ethnic political succession in New York City have never included Afro-Americans. In the period in which blacks were winning City Council seats and mayoralties, and influencing (if largely in the interests of the better-off) urban policy elsewhere, Ed Koch's and then Rudy Giuliani's long mayoral reigns, through finagling with the Board of Estimate and the City Council, were dedicated to wholesale black exclusion. Kim notes dryly that "this sheds some light on why Black efforts at empowerment eventually migrated outside of traditional political channels, resulting in the new Black Power movement of which the Red Apple Boycott was part." The Afro-American David Dinkins's short-lived stay in Gracie Mansion would be, among other political disasters, haunted by the boycott, begun only seventeen days after his inauguration.
The experiences of new Korean immigrants run entirely counter to this pattern. In the first place, Kim places post-1965 Korean immigration to the United States in the context of "America's protracted efforts to influence economic development and shore up repressive anticommunist regimes in a non-White nation located on the periphery, resulting in significant migration from periphery to core." That migration, in response to the explicit economic policy embedded in the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, was largely of educated, white-collar Koreans with small but significant savings to invest. Then these migrants were "racialized as Asian Americans and triangulated between Blacks and Whites.... It is in this way that the very economic opportunities that are closed to Blacks become the ticket to upward mobility for Korean Americans."
Thus, while they were certainly victimized by American racism, these Korean immigrants, unlike blacks, were not subject to its more extreme forms--residential segregation, pervasive violence and abuse on the streets and in the criminal justice system. They were, however, forced into the "status derogation" of small business by both their poor English skills and employer discrimination against them as "foreigners." Extensive Korean exploitation of retailing niches created ethnic business networks allowing them to take over entire urban retail sectors--greengrocers in New York and liquor stores in Los Angeles, for example. Relatively privileged but stressed and squeezed, Koreans in small business tended to subscribe even more extensively than white Americans to victim-blaming underclass mythology. The stage was set for the Red Apple boycott.
Here Kim really shines as an analyst. She disabuses us of "the conventional notion that the boycotters were venting their frustrations on Koreans instead of on Whites" by placing the event inside the "resurgent Black Power movement in New York City." She identifies the heterogeneous players in and the politics of that movement, characterized in mainstream media as a solid bloc of crazy white-haters, and places them in the context of the public and private antiblack onslaught of the Koch years. Kim demonstrates how always-latent black nationalism became the lowest common denominator "frame repertoire" for organizing the boycott, despite the more developed left politics of the dominant black American December 12th Movement, which took over from the original Haitian agitators. And she notes the ultimate irony that this group, which was vilified as violently anti-Asian, "had presumptively positive feelings toward Koreans," encouraged black patronage of all Korean greengrocers except the two under boycott and had even engaged in pro-Korean unification demonstrations.
Kim also carefully lays out the roles of mainstream, black, Haitian and Korean media in motivating the boycott and the backlash against it. As a long-term lover of the neglected public media of black and Latino radio, I particularly appreciate her coverage of the key organizing functions of minority radio stations. Kim shows effectively how their very different transnational as well as American placements structured Korean and Haitian interpretations and actions. During the boycott, for example, to offset their losses, the two storeowners received $150,000 from Korean-American and other sources. While this capital infusion was important, the real battle of the boycott occurred in the realm of the political. The "multiple layers of contested meaning" created by activists and their associated media inevitably resolved themselves into the overwhelming mainstream-media narrative, in which "colorblind talk," heavily appropriating civil rights-era references, "garbled and distorted" the boycotters' message and defined them solely as crime-prone anti-Korean racists. Michael Kinsley, for example, "the putative representative of the left on CNN's Crossfire, said simply: 'You don't mediate between out and out racism on the one hand and a hardworking entrepreneur on the other. And that's what's going on.'" Kim justly observes that "the most striking aspect of the regular news coverage of the Red Apple Boycott was its univocality."
This single voice put David Dinkins "squarely on the hot seat." Already having been accused, before taking office, both of pandering to black extremists and of selling out communities of color, Dinkins could only lose on the boycott issue. His early refusal to send in the NYPD to move the protesters off-site enraged the city's elite, who claimed he was ruining New York City's business climate. But his final capitulation to white pressure, a televised speech opposing "any boycott based on race," stung his black supporters. Al Sharpton accused Dinkins's speech of being like "a James Brown record--talking loud and saying nothing." And attorney Vernon Mason declared that "he ain't got no African left in him." Overwhelmed by bad publicity, the boycott lost steam and collapsed after only eight months of picketing. Kim notes the key role it played in New York electoral politics: "David Dinkins made history again by becoming the first breakthrough Black mayor in American history to lose office after only one term." In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani "won a highly racially polarized election to become only the third Republican mayor of New York City since 1930." And we all know what happened then!
Kim ends her fine study with a riff on W.E.B. Du Bois's twentieth-century color-line aphorism: "It seems likely that the problem of the twenty-first century will be that of the multiple color lines embedded in the American racial order." She rightly asks, "When is 'voice' really voice?"--querying claims of American democracy in the context of centralized and corporate-controlled mass media (and, we might add, of differentially efficient and functional voting machines). I would have liked her to deal with the gendered dimensions of the Red Apple boycott, write more extensively about non-Korean Asian-American politics around the event and trace out the implications of her work for other faulty analyses of the dilemmas of "middleman minorities" in the American and global past and present. But no one book can accomplish everything, and Kim's Bitter Fruit sets an incisive new pattern for our understanding of class in multiracial politics as we live through the bitter years ahead.
Is there a more contemptible poseur and windbag than Elie Wiesel? I suppose there may be. But not, surely, a poseur and windbag who receives (and takes as his due) such grotesque deference on moral questions.
What's at stake in faith-based politics
After a bruising fight fopr the presidency, George W. Bush is stocking his cabinet with figures from the far right, none more so than John Ashcroft.
Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.
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.
House GOP whip Tom DeLay will do his best to pull the President to the right.
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.
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.