The right wing has long believed that the best defense is a good offense. Not surprisingly then, they accuse those who dare criticize George W. Bush's attorney general nominee, John Ashcroft, of engaging in the "politics of personal destruction," as the President-elect's attorney, Theodore B. Olson, put it in a L.A. Times column.
That is nonsense. The criticisms of Ashcroft have nothing to do with his personal behavior and everything to do with his long and consistent advocacy for an extreme right-wing political agenda. It's perfectly reasonable to question whether an attorney general who has celebrated the angry mobs demonstrating at abortion clinics will also defend the legal right of those clinics to function.
Ashcroft is an avowed enemy of moderation, as he spelled out to a GOP gathering in 1998: "There are voices in the Republican Party today who preach pragmatism, who champion conciliation, who counsel compromise. I stand here today to reject those deceptions. If ever there is a time to unfurl the banner of unabashed conservatism, it is now."
To place such an ideologue in charge of the Justice Department was Bush's payoff to the right wing, but it is at best a cynical choice that certainly deserves to be strongly challenged in the Senate. Such challenges were a specialty of Ashcroft, who turned the Senate into an ideological black hole for Clinton nominees. Yet his defenders now claim that Ashcroft should be immune to criticism because, as Olson claims, "Presidents are customarily given great latitude" in such nominations.
How hypocritical to make that argument on behalf of a man who specialized in savaging Clinton's choices. Ashcroft held up the nomination of two of Clinton's picks to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Bill Lann Lee, who has impeccable credentials, now serves in that capacity on a temporary basis only because he was appointed when the Senate was not in session. "I doubt seriously whether the nomination will get out of committee," Ashcroft boasted, claiming that Lee could not enforce the laws fairly because he had worked as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is the fabled organization that successfully sued to end segregation in the United States.
Ashcroft has been the Senate's leader in blocking many of Clinton's judicial nominees, including Margaret Morrow, a centrist and highly regarded leader of the bar, because he did not agree with a sentence she wrote in a Law Review article. Morrow was finally approved, over Ashcroft's objections, when many of his Republican colleagues came to recognize that there simply was no basis for rejecting someone as qualified as Morrow.
In another among many such cases, Ashcroft held up the appointment of Missouri's Supreme Court Justice Ronnie L. White, an African-American, to the federal bench. White was twice approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Ashcroft managed a two-year delay in the vote coming before the full Senate, where Ashcroft managed to get White defeated on a party-line vote.
Ashcroft was less successful in blocking the appointment of David Satcher to become US surgeon general because they differed on partial-birth abortion. The Senate handily approved Satcher, but it was over Ashcroft's strenuous objections. How ironic that Ashcroft's supporters now ask that he be treated with kid gloves during his own nomination hearings.
Such obstructionist tactics in the Senate came to an abrupt and embarrassing end with Ashcroft's defeat in November by a deceased opponent, providing as clear a case of voter rejection as one can imagine. Obviously, voters were not swayed by the huge publicity Ashcroft received for his vitriolic campaign demanding the impeachment of President Clinton. Given that the charges against the President have not been fully resolved, are we to expect that Ashcroft will dispose of them in an objective manner?
Ashcroft's hysterical attacks on Clinton and his fervent embrace of the right-wing social agenda led him to explore a bid for the presidency as the ultra-right alternative to Bush. He seemed to be attacking Bush when he told a New Hampshire television interviewer that there are "two things you find in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk, and I don't want to be either one of them."
Surely most Americans would insist that the man who oversees the FBI and all federal prosecution be a genuine moderate capable of evenhanded enforcement of the nation's laws. The voters gave the Democrats equal strength in the Senate and defeated Bush by more than half a million votes in the popular election. That is a mandate for Bush to appoint moderates and for Democratic and reasonable Republican senators to hold him to his pledge, with a thumbs down to Ashcroft.