Of Racists and Republicans:

Editor's note: In the current issue of The American Prospect, staff writer Nicholas Confessore explains just why opposition to John Ashcroft, now George W. Bush's attorney general, was so ineffective. National Review editor Rich Lowry attacked Confessore's article a few days after it was posted on the web. Here, Confessore responds.

I'm never sure whether to be insulted or gratified when a writer for the National Review accuses me of "McCarthyism," given the magazine's founder's notorious association with the man who gave birth to the word. And given that Rich Lowry assails me for name-calling, there's an awful lot of it in his own piece. (It seems I'm lazy, cowardly, and weak-minded) This sort of thing plays well on Crossfire, I guess, but it doesn't make for thoughtful debate. And the conservative slot on Spin Room is taken, big guy.

But let me address Lowry's appraisal of my recent article about John Ashcroft on the merits.

Lowry compares blaming the Republicans for David Duke with blaming the Democrats for the North Vietnamese. "[The] analogous argument near the end of the Vietnam War would have been: The North Vietnamese agree with the Democrats' positions on the war, therefore those positions are communist. This is a cowardly and weak-minded way to argue." I agree. Too bad many Republicans made precisely these arguments against Democrats during the Vietnam War -- which, by his verb tense ("would"), I presume Lowry did not know. (As my colleague Thomas Lowenstein points out, one Republican challenger often attacked his late father Al Lowenstein, then a U.S Representative from Long Island, as a "Vietcongressman.") The apt analogy would be this: For Ashcroft to grant an interview with Southern Partisan and praise their neo-Confederate revisionism is not unlike a Democratic senator traveling to Vietnam in the 1970s, granting an interview to The People's Daily, and praising the glories of life under communism.

But two wrongs don't make a right. So, again: To the merits.

Effective critics seek out the weakest parts of a subject's argument and aim their fire there. That's fair. What's less fair is to zoom in on parts of your subject's argument and deliberately distort them, as Lowry has done.

Lowry's epigraph has me writing, "Who, exactly, was branding Ashcroft a racist?" as though I were considering everything that has ever been written or said about John Ashcroft. He then carts out Jack White's TV quote to cut my legs out from under me. Readers of my actual piece will know I was referring to Ashcroft's hearings before the Senate judiciary committee, during which all of his opponents conceded that he was not a racist. There's a reason why they were compelled to do so: Today, in the realm of respectable political debate, you're either Bull Connor or a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr. And if you're not the former, Lowry and the Republicans have argued, you must necessarily be the latter.

Essentially, Lowry wants to box me out: If I can't point to any quotations in which Ashcroft identifies himself as a racist, or argues explicitly for discriminatory policies, then how dare I accuse him of not being squeaky clean on race? Lowry's argument sounds stupid when stripped down like that. That's because it is stupid. Stupid, and very rhetorically convenient: If Ashcroft has never identified himself as a racist or called for a repeal of the 13th Amendment, but only these would qualify for questioning him on the race issue, then anyone criticizing Ashcroft must be a racemongering character assassin.

But I should thank Lowry, because his attack on my piece perfectly parallels the general Republican strategy during the Ashcroft fight: Divide the world between radical left-wing activists who argue that Ashcroft is a racist, and those who saw only a fine, upstanding family man. If there was no firm middle ground to be staked out against Ashcroft, moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats wouldn't be able to vote against him. And that is what happened.

There was, of course, a middle ground. It just wasn't delineated clearly enough. To call Ashcroft's Ronnie White vote "an appeal to race", or "strong evidence for those who believe the Senate treats minority and women judiciary nominees unequally", is not to imply that Ashcroft is a racist as Lowry uses the term. It is an effort, albeit a clumsy one, to point out Ashcroft's repeated willingness to pander to and mobilize racial animus for his own political benefit -- regardless of what his own personal feelings about blacks may be. To Lowry, this argument makes me a bleached-out Al Sharpton. But I've never, ever argued, as some on the loony left do, that simply to oppose affirmative action or welfare spending is racist, or that scoring poorly on the NAACP report card is indicative of latent racism. That's dumb.

But does Lowry not know that, as a matter of historical fact, Republicans intentionally crafted a political approach that appealed to racists, and continued exploiting it for years? If not, maybe he needs to take another look at some of the seminal documents of his own political movement, starting with Kevin Phillips' 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority. Phillips, a loyal Republican, was an advisor to Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign. By that point, Phillips wrote, the GOP "had decided to break with its formative" -- that is, racially liberal -- "antecedents and make an ideological bid for the anti-civil rights South." How? By identifying the increasingly unpopular redistributional and social policies of the Democrats as closely as possible with the much loathed, post-Voting Rights Act rise of black political power. Phillips bloodlessly called this "Negrophobe" politics, which is cute, but the meaning is clear. In fact, Phillips argued that the Nixon Administration should continue to enforce black voting rights, as doing so was "essential if southern conservatives [were] to be pressured into switching to the Republican Party." And what of the resulting racial tension? "[G]iven the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration, reaction to this change almost inevitably had to result in political realignment." Translation: Sorry, Negros.You're the Democrats' problem now.

I'm willing to cut Phillips a little slack -- this was 1969 -- but Lowry should know better. "Confessore accuses Ashcroft of seeking to 'benefit' from racist support without bothering, say, to argue why it was actually wrong to oppose Ronnie White, or why court-ordered busing in Missouri . . . actually helped black kids, or why quotas and race preferences don't represent a betrayal of America's ideals." Lowry's missing my point entirely (and deliberately). It goes without saying that there are principled arguments to be made against, say, racial quotas. But it matters how you make them. You can argue on the merits, or you can argue that affirmative action gives lazy minorities a leg up on God-Fearing Real Americans. There is a difference, and Lowry knows it.

Since I think Lowry is basically a good guy, and I don't see him defending Southern Partisan or the Dixiecrats, I'm also willing to believe he doesn't quite mean this as an endorsement of race-baiting, i.e., "those wedge issues." But the point is that whether or not Republican ends in the 1960s and 1970s were legitimate doesn't affect the fact that the means of mobilizing support for those ends was often disgusting. So is the modern, somewhat ameliorated, Ashcroftian version. What, Ronnie White voted once for the retrial -- not the acquittal -- of an African-American defendant whose judge had recently opined that blacks are not taxpaying, law-abiding citizens? Geez, how "pro-criminal" can you get? If there really was a principled case against White, Ashcroft should have had the balls to make it before blindsiding White on the Senate floor, not after being nominated for Attorney General.

Am I a McCarthyite? No. Unlike hoary old Joe McCarthy, I would never call for John Ashcroft's banishment from public life, his imprisonment (or that of the folks at Southern Partisan) on charges of treason, or a witch-hunt for putative racists in the Ashcroft Justice Department. But there should rightly be a political consequence to his brand of pandering. In the end, there is no good reason why Ashcroft's Southern Partisan interview alone, on its face, shouldn't have been an acceptable basis for Democrats and Republicans alike to oppose his nomination to be Attorney General of the United States.