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.