Before John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings even started, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott announced that all 50 Republican senators would vote to confirm Ashcroft as attorney general. When Democratic Senators Zell Miller of Georgia and Robert Byrd of West Virginia announced recently that they would vote for him, they reconfirmed that Ashcroft would be approved. That is, unless there's a filibuster. And filibuster is just what Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy is hinting he may do.
A filibuster on a cabinet confirmation would be apparently unprecedented -- and the Senate's Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle announced this weekend that he would not support such a move. But extreme nominees call for extreme means.
Welcome to week one of Ralph Nader's plan to energize the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. (Remember his pronouncements that it would be better for progressive causes if George W. Bush won?) Well, Dubya is in the White House and former heads of huge corporations have been installed as vice president and treasury secretary. Republicans' calls for bipartisanship and "healing" are echoing across the land. Nevertheless, their efforts at papering-over the election results are at least as transparent as their hypocrisy (one cannot imagine Dick Armey, Trent Lott, or Tom DeLay calling as passionately for "healing" if Gore had won and nominated the left-wing equivalent of John Ashcroft -- say, as cartoonist Tom Tomorrow did, Al Sharpton -- to be attorney general).
But here we are, and Bush pronounces it's time to move on: He is entitled to commence his assault on freedom of choice by issuing a presidential order blocking all U.S. funds to international groups that offer abortions or abortion counseling. He's entitled to let the NRA set up shop in his newly redecorated Oval Office. He's entitled to nominate his people (or his father's, let's not be nitpicky) to his cabinet.
But moving on requires conciliation on Bush's part as well as on the Democrats'. And Bush's nominations have hardly been conciliatory. So when one of Bush's nominees is so right wing as to oppose school integration, abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and give interviews to racist magazines and speeches at racist universities, as John Ashcroft has, Democrats have closely intertwined moral and political obligations to reject that nomination.
If Democrats are willing to let someone with John Ashcroft's views become attorney general without a fight, what do they stand for? And let's be clear about his pledge to uphold laws he fought so vigorously against: He may mean that when he says it, but the attorney general has influence far beyond his technical upholding of a given law, setting policies in many subtle ways that can adversely effect the laws he claims to be upholding. Furthermore, the Justice Department has a limited budget. If Ashcroft decides to allocate $1.20 to the office that enforces the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, he can claim he's upholding the law, but no one is protected.
Furthermore, after an election as close as this one was, why are Democrats unwilling to make President Bush stick to his pledges of bringing America together? Bush has a moral obligation to follow through on his pledge, and Democrats have the same obligation to call him on it when he doesn't. How much bipartisanship was there in the Republicans announcing before the Ashcroft hearings even started that they would all vote to confirm him? (Furthermore, after two African-American congresswomen described Ashcroft's appalling civil rights record in detail at the hearings last week, sanctimonious Republican members of the Judiciary Committee then jumped in with stories of how much they liked and respected black people. Apparently, they didn't respect them enough to listen to their testimony before deciding how to vote, however.)
Which brings us to the political reality of the Ashcroft nomination. In the wake of an election in which African-Americans were denied access to the polls in Florida, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant "equal protection" to George W. Bush, the nomination of anti-integration, pro-Confederacy Ashcroft is supremely galling to African-Americans and anyone else who cares about civil rights. The Democratic Party must stand up for the constituency that gave 90 percent of its vote to Gore and that has been among President Clinton's strongest allies. If the Democrats are willing to let Ashcroft go without a fight, they will be in the horrible position of saying to some of their strongest supporters, "Hey, look, we know it's upsetting, but in the name of getting along, just accept this guy." Or, to put it more bluntly: "Accept another indignity, because we're all you've got."
Democrats won the popular vote in 2000, and African-American voters were essential to that effort. Someone in the Democratic Party must say no to Ashcroft to let the base of the party know that they get it: There are major differences between the parties and that, while they will do everything they can to work with the new president, they will not do so at the cost of their basic, core beliefs.
Certainly, Democrats need to be careful to not seem as if they're still just angry about the election, or are out to stymie the new president at every turn. But bringing the reasons for opposing Ashcroft to the Senate floor need not come across that way if it's presented to the country as what it is -- a defense, not an attack; a call for bipartisanship, not a run from it.
That's why Senator Kennedy (and every other self-respecting liberal senator) should filibuster. Kennedy has a chance to stand up for African-American voters and, in the process, to make his fellow Democrats choose whether to actively agree to the Ashcroft confirmation by voting to invoke cloture instead of just going along, confirming a nomination that seems inevitable. The Democrats need a leader willing to shine a light on President Bush when he moves far to the right of the platform on which he still lost the popular vote.
The Senator should stand for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party by filibustering the Ashcroft nomination. The only way for our country to move beyond the election and come together is to reject the symbol of that which has torn it apart. Ashcroft is that symbol.