Senate Democrats must save George W. Bush from his scarier self. They must reject the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general, an appointment that gives the extreme right its most cherished prize–the power to undermine decades of progress in civil rights, free speech and abortion rights. This is not a position for a right-wing ideologue, which Ashcroft certainly is.
Outwardly, Bush plays the moderate. That’s why he came so close to legitimately winning the presidency. During the campaign, he kept his distance from the GOP right wing while battling Al Gore for the support of centrist voters. Now, obviously not at all chastened by being the first president in more than a century to have lost the popular vote, Bush has boldly appointed Pat Robertson’s favorite senator to the most important domestic position in his administration.
Ashcroft believes that moderate is a dirty word. “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,” he thundered during his brief primary campaign as the far right’s alternative to George W.
All one needs to know about Ashcroft is that he achieved a 100 percent voting record from Robertson’s Christian Coalition on every major vote he cast in the US Senate, from abortion and the environment to the arts and the economy. But it’s a voting record that cost Ashcroft his Senate seat in Missouri.
Clearly, the political center is where Ashcroft’s former constituents and most Americans want their government to be. The voting public’s inability to decide between two moderate candidates for President was just one indication of its rejection of extreme politics. People expect the Justice Department to enforce laws regarding a woman’s sovereignty over her own body, civil rights, gun control and drug treatment, among others.
Yet here we have Ashcroft, a man who sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban abortion even in the case of rape and incest. How can we expect him to protect a woman’s right to a medical procedure that he regards as murder?
As for civil rights, Ashcroft was notorious in the Senate for systematically blackballing President Clinton’s judicial and administrative appointees solely because they possessed a strong pro-civil rights record. Indeed, Ashcroft, in an interview with the neosegregationist Southern Partisan magazine, even flirted with the notion that the wrong side may have won the Civil War. Can he now be trusted to follow through on the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into the abysmal treatment of black voters in Florida? Hardly.
Just go down the list of issues, and Ashcroft is farthest to the right on most of them.
He’s a stern opponent of laws that would prevent discrimination against homosexuals and was particularly mean-spirited in his attacks during the confirmation of James Hormel, who happens to be gay, as ambassador to Luxembourg. He’s a darling of the National Rifle Association. And, at a time of growing recognition, even by the retiring drug czar, that the drug war has failed, we face the prospect of an attorney general who, as a senator, voted against a law to provide funding for treatment. This measure was so noncontroversial that even Republican hard-liners like Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond were sponsors.
Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who at first said he was inclined to grant Bush his choice as attorney general, says upon further reflection that Ashcroft must prove to his former colleagues in the Senate that he “will vigorously pursue the civil rights laws that he has–with good reason from his perspective–argued against for the last twenty years.”
Too late for such proof. Biden and his colleagues should make it clear that there can be no bipartisan cooperation if the Bush Administration insists on insulting the majority of American voters by putting extreme ideologues in charge of Justice. They have an obligation to keep the faith with voters who gave Gore a more than 500,000-vote margin of victory in the popular vote and the Democrats a tie in the Senate.
Those voters, as well as many who voted for Bush thinking he was not beholden to the right wing of his party, should not be betrayed in deference to the clubbiness of the Senate. Ashcroft took the gloves off when he blocked Clinton’s appointees. It is time Senate Democrats showed the voters they can dish it out as well as take it.
Ashcroft’s supporters assure us that he will have no trouble enforcing laws that he disagrees with. But since he profoundly disagrees with so many, why put the man through such a test?
Senate Democrats should spare Ashcroft the anxiety that derives from pretending to enforce laws he finds deeply immoral.