Comment: Senatorial Courtesy

The nomination of defeated Missouri Senator John Ashcroft as attorney general will test whether Democrats will spend the next four years getting rolled. This is George W. Bush's signature appointment, his thank-you gift to the far right. How bad is Ashcroft? This bad:

He was one of three senators to sponsor the Human Life Amendment, which says life begins at fertilization. This would ban not just abortions but birth control pills. National Journal ranked him as tied for most conservative senator, to the right of North Carolina's Jesse Helms. The League of Conservation Voters gives him a zero. He disdains separation of church and state and gets a perfect score from the Christian Coalition. He accepted an honorary degree from racially separatist Bob Jones University.

In 1999 Ashcroft blocked the appointment of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench. White, who is an African American, had cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, 15-3, with most Republicans voting aye. Then Ashcroft weighed in, citing votes by White to overturn death penalty cases and asserting that the nominee would "push law in a procriminal direction." In fact, White's record on the Missouri court is similar to that of other justices who are Republican and Caucasian. But the Senate Republicans know something about cohesion and mutual support. As a courtesy to Ashcroft, the Republican caucus voted en bloc against the nomination, which lost 55-45 on the Senate floor.

Ashcroft would be the nation's chief law enforcer. Given how Bush stole the election, Senate Democrats should be loaded for bear. But two key Democrats--Joseph Biden of Connecticut, who as chair of the Judiciary Committee bungled the opposition to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the reliably faithless Robert Torricelli of New Jersey--have already hinted that they'll support Ashcroft. No Senate Democrat has announced opposition.

Why not? Ashcroft is a fellow member of the world's most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate. So even Senate liberals will look for reasons not to deny him confirmation. He is said to be a nice guy, a man of principle and integrity. (So am I, but nobody is appointing me attorney general.) In modern times, only one senator has been denied cabinet confirmation. In 1989 the Senate refused to approve John Tower of Texas to be Poppy George Bush's secretary of defense, mainly because Tower was a drunk.

Democrats are repeating the disastrous mistake they made in the Florida recount wars. They want to seem high-minded and judicious while the Republicans fight like partisan alley cats. The right, meanwhile, is trying to set the bar so low that Ashcroft can easily clear it. If he's sober, courteous, competent, not corrupt, and not an overt racist, he should be confirmed. But Democrats would be fools to fall for this.

Bush has no mandate to govern from the far right. Ordinarily, the opposition party cuts an incoming president a good deal of slack. But this appointment is different. Bush is no ordinary incoming president. Attorney general is no ordinary presidential appointment. And Ashcroft is no ordinary conservative.

Just after Christmas, President Clinton, using his power to make recess appointments, named Roger Gregory of Virginia, a distinguished black corporate attorney, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Gregory will be the southeastern circuit's first black appellate judge. His nomination had the support of Virginia's Republican Senator John Warner, but it had been blocked by Jesse Helms. As usual, other Republicans, including moderates, threatened a filibuster as a courtesy to Helms.

Democrats need to learn this brand of courtesy. Otherwise George W. Bush might as well have won in a landslide. ¤

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