Fight Ashcroft?

Yesterday, as leading party strategists gathered in a Washington, D.C. hotel conference room to apportion blame for Gore's victory, Senator Tom Daschle assured President Bush that Democrats would not filibuster John Ashcroft's confirmation for attorney general, thereby all but guaranteeing that Ashcroft would be approved. The promise came just one day after ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, asked to postpone the Ashcroft vote for a week -- a move that many interpreted as a signal that Democrats were gearing up for a fight. And it came the same day that moderate Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein -- a member of the Judiciary Committee -- announced she would vote against Ashcroft.

Al Gore may have run for president on the theme of "pragmatic idealism." But his fellow Democrats don't practice it, and it's killing them. The Ashcroft nomination is a clear example of that fact. If even 41 if the 50 Democratic senators would agree to vote against stopping a filibuster, the party could defeat the Ashcroft nomination without a single Republican vote. Yet the Senate Democrats seem divided between those who 1) think they can beat him and may try to, 2) want to beat him but think they can't so aren't trying, and 3) aren't sure they want to beat him after all. Compare that to the Republican senators -- some of whose moderate politics are miles to the left of John Ashcroft's -- none of whom have breathed a word contrary to the party talking points, and all of whom will vote for his confirmation next week.

As Democrats publicly ponder, the tide of public opinion is turning against Ashcroft. Three separate people have now come forward to say that Ashcroft, at the very least, was misleading in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee. Paul Offner reports that in a job interview with then-Governor Ashcroft to be head of the Missouri Department of Social Services, Ashcroft asked him point-blank about his sexual orientation; Ashcroft told the committee "sexual orientation has never been something that I've used in hiring . . . in any of the offices I've held."

Ashcroft blocked Judge Ronnie White's confirmation for a federal judgeship, calling him "pro-criminal" because of his ruling in a single death penalty case. Judge White, too, felt that Ashcroft was misleading in some of his testimony before the Judiciary Committee. And, finally, there's James Hormel, Clinton's appointee to be ambassador to Luxembourg, whose nomination Ashcroft opposed because Hormel was a "leader" in "promoting" a gay lifestyle. Hormel also says that Ashcroft "misrepresented" facts about their relationship to the committee.

(Note: I'm certain that Ashcroft's misleading statements under oath are of profound concern to right-wing moneybags Richard Mellon Scaife. Surely, Scaife must be writing out a huge grant to The American Spectator to investigate at this very moment, just as he gave $ 2.3 million to the Spectator to investigate Bill Clinton.)

With dirt on Ashcroft piling up around Washington and even overly-cautious Feinstein coming out against him, the Democratic Caucus' inability to pull together and defeat Ashcroft is a bad political mistake. First of all, if no Democrat filibusters the Ashcroft nomination, the party will send a loud and clear message to its base, and particularly to the African-American community, that they don't get it and, furthermore, feel that they don't have to. Furthermore, Democrats have gotten a delay in the vote for a week. As Ashcroft's reactionary record and questionable statements under oath sink in, the public may well rally against this nomination. Where will this leave the Democrats -- joining Republicans to force through an attorney general who most Americans don't want? That's not bipartisanship, that's political miscalculation.

Practicing pragmatic idealism means knowing in your heart what you believe, and picking the fights you can win to advance your cause. The decision not to rally against Ashcroft was neither pragmatic nor idealistic. It's not pragmatic, because allowing Ashcroft to be confirmed without a fight is a political mistake. Not fighting his nomination discourages the base of the party, allows Republicans to define "bipartisanship" as "whatever the president wants, you give him," and now, worst of all, puts Dems in the position of ramming through an unpopular nominee. It's not idealistic, because defeating Ashcroft -- no matter what your definition of the soul of the Democratic Party is -- is a cause worth fighting for.

Senator Daschle is a good man and a smart politician, so one can only assume there is some deal at work here that isn't public yet -- he must have decided that this is the wrong battle at the wrong moment. I respect his judgment, and I hope he's right. But, yet again, the left is in danger of dissolving into finger pointing.

Forget working with Republicans. On a matter of such import, can't the Democrats even work with each other?