Before his confirmation was settled, Democratic senators let fly at their former colleague John Ashcroft, explaining why the former governor, senator and attorney general of Missouri was unfit to serve as attorney general of the United States.
Sen. Paul Wellstone pegged his opposition to the fact that Ashcroft had accepted a speaking invitation from Bob Jones University. Wellstone waxed passionate on the subject, using this toothpick as the springboard for all-out condemnation of Ashcroft as racially insensitive.
Now, perhaps Ashcroft ought not to have accepted the Bob Jones invitation. But politicians have this habit of trolling for votes (Ashcroft was at the time considering a presidential run) wherever they may be found. President George Bush also addressed an audience at Bob Jones. Does Wellstone think the president is unfit? And what about those who are racially insensitive at the other end of the spectrum -- the Farrakhans and Sharptons of this world? Wellstone was one of Bill Bradley's strongest supporters. I don't recall him uttering a word of protest when Bradley groveled before Al Sharpton during the New York primary.
Besides, one lapse cannot be an excuse for branding someone a racist or even racially insensitive. Ashcroft has a long, blemish-free career on matters of race. Shouldn't fair-minded people take this into account?
One suspects that Wellstone is well aware of Ashcroft's true record, but it just feels so goooooooood to enter the well of the senate chamber and invoke the late Hubert Humphrey and the great liberal tradition of the state of Minnesota that the facts must take a back seat.
Actually, there is another reason the Democrats think they must wave the bloody shirt of racism at every opportunity, and it has less to do with moral preening than with simple survival. Gazing at the electoral map, Democrats have figured out that their appeal to ordinary, married, middle-class Americans is slipping away. To paraphrase Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager, the Democratic base consists of labor unions, feminists, blacks and other minorities. If black Americans ever stop voting 90 percent in their favor, the Democrats may cease to be a major party.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., spoke for many when she rose to explain her "no" vote. She respects Ashcroft's strongly held views, she insisted, but was puzzled by his willingness to "put them on the shelf" during his term as attorney general.
Come on. She doesn't really mean that she respects his views. That doyen of the straight and narrow, Sen. Hillary Clinton, deems his views "way out of the mainstream". Throughout the confirmation hearing, Democratic senators attempted to get Ashcroft to say things they could disagree with. If he had done so, they would have denounced him, Wellstonelike. But he didn't. So Mikulski took the opposite tack and insisted that it wasn't his views she minded but rather her suspicion that his "confirmation conversion" was insincere. This is known as damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Mikulski and others also expressed alarm on behalf of Ashcroft's soul. It just wouldn't be right, they claimed, to ask a man to violate his conscience by administering laws with which he disagreed. Certainly, Democrats, who don't believe in the rule of law, would not do so.
And this brings us to the final specious argument raised about Ashcroft -- namely that his own opposition to Bill Lann Lee on "ideological" grounds vitiates his right to be judged only on qualifications. But where Ashcroft has said he will enforce laws permitting abortion, Lee pointedly said he would not enforce laws forbidding racial set-asides in cases where actual discrimination had not been shown. At Lee's confirmation hearing, he made clear that despite the clear rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, he would continue to litigate and agitate for racial preferences and set asides -- as he later did when President Clinton illegally "recess-appointed" him as assistant attorney general.
When Republicans like Ashcroft cited this indifference to the clear law of the land, Democrats responded in characteristic fashion -- they said the defeat of Lee was proof that the Republicans were guilty of bias against Asians!
Ashcroft is safe. But the battle over his nomination was a dress rehearsal for the big show -- the first Supreme Court appointment.