Why John Ashcroft Is Alright for the Left


By Howard Gleckman The Senate Judiciary Committee is going to vote later this week on the nomination of John Ashcroft to be Attorney General. And, predictably, interest groups on the left and right are in full cry. Liberals insist that Ashcroft is a political extremist who shouldn't be allowed to serve as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. The right rants about a smear campaign against a good man.

Unless some personal scandal pops up in the next few days, Ashcroft will be O.K.'d by the committee and soon after, the full Senate. It's no surprise that this will make the right very happy. After all, they'll have gotten a deeply committed conservative in a key government post. But, in a classic Washington double-reverse, it's going to make the left very happy, too.

Democratic pols know that both Ashcroft and Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Interior Secretary, will be the poster children for the 2002 and 2004 campaigns. Ashcroft has a long record of opposing abortion for any purpose, all federal gun-control laws, affirmative action, and gay rights -- the whole panoply of social hot-button issues. Norton has been an outspoken critic of the federal laws protecting endangered species and is a strong backer of drilling, mining, and ranching on federal lands, including wilderness areas.

WATT, GORSUCH REDUX. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" may prove tough to run against, especially if the President can actually build consensus on such issues as health care and taxes. But if Ashcroft and Norton do and say enough over the next few years to enrage both moderates and the Democratic base, the Democratic Party will find it much easier to make its case that Bush is just another hard-right Republican.

And for liberal interest groups, Ashcroft and Norton in the Cabinet will be nothing less than money magnets. Not since President Reagan's duo of Interior chief James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch has the left had such an attractive pair of bogypersons. The liberal activist group People for the American Way has a Web site, opposeashcroft.com, where you can send a petition objecting to Ashcroft's nomination. Of course, by doing so, you also give the group your name, address, e-mail, and phone number -- invaluable fund-raising ammunition.

The National Abortion Rights Action League, a leading pro-choice group, takes it one step further. Go to its Web site and you're asked to contribute money to its "Stop Ashcroft campaign." And it's a similar story with with Norton. The Sierra Club has a Web page dedicated to blocking her confirmation. Sign up and -- not coincidentally -- you'll get on its mailing list as well.

All this is nothing new. In some ways, Ashcroft is to the left what Bill and Hillary Clinton have been to the right for the past eight years. After all, the campaign of Rick Lazio, the Republican who ran against Hillary in the New York Senate race last year, was largely bankrolled by a network of Clinton-haters.

DEFINING MOMENTS. That's not to say there aren't legitimate criticisms of Ashcroft, who sometimes shows a Clintonesque disregard for the truth. In his confirmation hearings, the former Missouri Senator fudged and finessed so much that the transcript reads like Clinton's deposition during the Paula Jones lawsuit. For instance, Ashcroft was criticized for opposing a voluntary desegregation effort in the St. Louis schools while he was Missouri's attorney general. In sworn testimony, Ashcroft responded by claiming he "inherited" the case from his predecessor. But he didn't. The state actually was sued in 1977, during Ashcroft's own tenure. I guess it depends on what your definition of "inherited" is.

Still, Democrats know they're not going to kill his nomination. So they're settling for the next best thing: Beat him up a little on the issues, keep the base energized, and hope that he's as controversial as they expect. If he is, you won't be able to turn on your TV during the 2002 congressional campaign season without seeing his face. That's bad? No, that's good -- for Democrats. Gleckman is a a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau


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