WASHINGTON -- After insisting for two weeks that George W. Bush must prove his bipartisanship by embracing their programs, Democratic senators now face their own test. Will they be good bipartisans and quickly confirm Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general, or try to rough him up?
That ought to be an easy call for Senate Democrats. Ashcroft is a colleague known for his friendly manner and even temper who served 16 years in high Missouri public office, first as attorney general and then as governor, before his 1994 election to the Senate. No scandal or ethical problem has ever been associated with him, and nobody has ever questioned his depth and intelligence.
But Ashcroft is the only bonafide representative of the conservative movement so far named by president-elect Bush to his Cabinet, and he may be one conservative too many for the liberal establishment. Activists vital to the Democratic Party are demanding Ashcroft's scalp, and Democratic senators will ignore them at their peril. At the least, they are pressured to bloody Ashcroft as a salutary warning to Bush about Supreme Court nominations. Those imperatives smother bipartisanship.
Complaining that the president-elect's early Cabinet choices reminded them of his father's, conservatives were exhilarated by the Ashcroft announcement last Friday. Actually, Bush had selected Ashcroft long before the election, but it was not divulged and was a welcome surprise for the right. No other Cabinet post is so important to conservatives. As attorney general, Ashcroft will be expected to clean out the Justice Department and change policy on issues headed by affirmative action, abortion and antitrust.
Since Ashcroft's conservatism is hardly reason for the Senate to reject a Cabinet nominee, his foes identified a suitable target within minutes of his unveiling: his opposition last year to Senate confirmation for a federal judgeship of Judge Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Widely opposed by his state's law enforcement officers because of lone dissents in criminal cases (including one in a death penalty verdict against a brutal cop killer), White was rejected by a Senate party-line vote on Oct. 5, 1999. "We do not need judges with a tremendous bent toward criminal activity," Ashcroft told the Senate just before the vote, "or with a bent toward excusing or providing second chances or opportunities for those who have been accused in these situations."
President Clinton immediately led the way smearing Ashcroft with charges of racism, which now have been renewed more than a year later. "He vilified and defamed this man to keep him from being a federal judge," the Rev. Jesse Jackson contended on CNN's "Late Edition" Sunday.
"Americans of all color are entitled to effective protection from violent criminals and illegals," said Ashcroft when he was called a racist in 1999. He has voted for 90 percent of black judicial nominees and, as governor of Missouri, selected the first African-American for the state Court of Appeals in Kansas City, among other black judges. The argument against Ashcroft is basically the false equation that a vote against any minority group member amounts to a vote for racism.
Actually, no senator has yet expressed opposition to Ashcroft. The veteran Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden has pointed to the difference between considering a Cabinet nominee serving at the president's pleasure and a lifetime federal judicial appointment (though in the 1980s, Biden still said judges should be evaluated by the Senate for competence rather than ideology).
But the legions of the left who were arrayed against Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas now demand the demolition of John Ashcroft. "Any pretense of unifying the nation has ended with this nomination," said the NAACP's Julian Bond. Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice declared that Ashcroft is "not fit to hold the highest law-enforcement position in the land."
Democratic senators can ignore these jeremiads at their own risk. With Democrats in control of the Senate for 17 days until Dick Cheney becomes vice president on Jan. 20 to break the tie, they can unfairly wound Ashcroft so he begins his tenure at Justice as a cripple. Or, they can show they really mean it about bipartisanship.