May 27, 2020

The Ashcroft question

George W. Bush’s nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general probably will be confirmed, despite the controversy it has triggered and despite the knife-edge party division of the Senate.

Presidents usually get their way with Cabinet appointments. The Senate usually respects the decision of a president to name people he believes will carry out his policies. The clubby “upper body” almost invariably approves when the nominee is a former fellow senator. The last such rejection was John Tower, turned down 11 years ago for secretary of defense in the elder Bush’s Cabinet. He faced concerns about reported alcoholism and womanizing.

Mr. Ashcroft, on the contrary, is deeply religious and known as a straight arrow, who does not drink, smoke or dance. He made a distinguished record of honest and effective public service, as Missouri’s attorney general, governor and senator. He is a smart lawyer and was a strong state attorney general.

Many would agree that he owed much to the conservatives. They had helped save him from defeat in the South Carolina Republican primary. And they kept quiet enough after the nomination to let him conduct a centrist campaign that appealed to many moderates. Conservative leaders including Gary Bauer and Pat Robertson had complained that the first Cabinet appointments had been too mainstream and not conservative enough.

Mr. Ashcroft is clearly to the right of the mainstream, almost the opposite of Mr. Bush’s campaign image as a uniter. In Mr. Ashcroft’s brief run for president in 1998, he said: “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.”

In Missouri, Mr. Ashcroft is known to have built his political career on his opposition to school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing liberal African-Americans for public office. As attorney general, he lobbied the Reagan Administration to switch sides and oppose a broad school desegregation plan in St. Louis. He used the issue to defeat a rival and win the Missouri governorship.

In the Senate, he tried unsuccessfully to block the appointment of Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, who is black. And he led a successful drive to reject the judicial nomination of Ronnie White of St. Louis, the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court, to the U.S. District Court. Sen. Ashcroft called Justice White “pro-criminal and activist,” charging that he was too eager to overturn any conviction that would send someone to death row. The Senate rejected the nomination by a party-line vote of 54 to 45.

The record shows, however, that Justice White voted to affirm the death penalty in 41 of the 59 cases that came before him. And in 10 of the 18 cases in which against imposing the death penalty, the court’s vote was unanimous. And three of those named to the state Supreme Court by Mr. Ashcroft when he was governor voted to reverse the death penalty more often than Justice White.

As a senator, he has been a flat-out opponent of a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. He favors the most far-reaching form of a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest, although he voted repeatedly for “pro-life” legislation that provided exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Some in Washington have speculated that Mr. Bush has tried to ease the way for confirmation by clearing it in advance with some of the moderates. This is unlikely in the case of Maine’s two senators, both independent-minded moderate Republicans. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins can be counted on to study any nominee’s record and qualifications before deciding how to vote.

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