How Ashcroft Happened

If all had gone according to George W. Bush's original plan, Marc Racicot would today be our attorney general. Racicot, who was, until recently, governor of Montana, would have been a solid choice. Though he's enough of a GOP loyalist to satisfy the party faithful (he earned his partisan spurs working on Bush's behalf during the Florida recount), he is moderate enough to have pleased the suburban voters who turned out for Bush based on his claim to be a "uniter, not a divider." At one point recently, Racicot had the highest approval rating--87 percent--of any governor in the country. Liberal groups still might have opposed Racicot based on his official stance against abortion, for example, but he would not have been a provocation to them.

John Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a brazen provocation: He's a hard-core conservative on race, civil rights, abortion, and a host of other issues. As is by now quite well known, he has a history of blocking African-American judicial appointments and making controversial comments about the Confederacy. Racicot may not be as liberal as a northern Republican like Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, but he and Ashcroft hail from opposite wings of the Republican Party.

So why did Ashcroft supplant Racicot? Shouldn't Bush, as a new president with a shaky claim to legitimacy and a desire to be perceived as moderate, have gone for the less controversial choice? Lost in all the brouhaha over Ashcroft's confirmation hearings is the story of how Ashcroft came to be nominated in the first place. In that story lies a glimpse of who is influencing the Bush administration and how they go about it.

Three days before Bush announced his nominee for attorney general, a small group of intellectual Catholic and Protestant conservatives--unhappy with what they perceived to be Racicot's moderate views on abortion, homosexuality, and school choice--recruited Princeton University professor Robert P. George to draft a paper detailing the case against Racicot.

George was ideally suited to the task. A rising conservative star who made a name for himself defending Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing, George is a prominent natural-law theorist who holds Woodrow Wilson's old chair at Princeton. He is also a staunch Roman Catholic and ardent pro-life activist; he once penned an amicus brief for Mother Teresa asking the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, he has written extensively on the need for conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals to employ "interfaith cooperation in pursuit of operational objectives in the culture war." (By "operational objectives," George means stopping gay rights and banning abortion.)

George's report on Racicot quickly circulated among conservatives and made its way to Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser. Rove tried unsuccessfully to convince the group of Racicot's conservative bona fides, both in conference calls and in face-to-face talks. Two days after George's report began to circulate, Racicot withdrew from consideration. "We're still not clear what exactly happened," a spokeswoman for Racicot confided.

Two related phenomena combined to derail Racicot--and George and his fellow conservative religious intellectuals would rather those phenomena not come to light. The first was religious conservatives' tacit agreement to stay out of the spotlight during Bush's presidential campaign in order not to frighten off moderate voters, as many believe they had during the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. The second is the decline over the past decade in the animosity between evangelicals and Catholics, and the subsequent movement, of which George is a prominent member, to form what he calls a "pan-orthodox alliance" between Catholic social conservatives and evangelical Protestants to exert greater influence over public affairs.

This movement has been most visible in the religious academic journal First Things, where George is on the editorial advisory board. It was this group of predominantly Catholic intellectuals (usually understood to include such people as Russell Hittinger, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran-minister-turned-Catholic-priest who edits First Things) who were most upset by Racicot's impending nomination. Abortion--the primary issue uniting Catholics and evangelical conservatives--was the motivating factor. George's patrons believed that Bush's attorney general needed to be "square" on abortion. And though Racicot was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee and his official statements were well in keeping with the conservative position on abortion, his informal comments did not meet this standard. Also, conservatives didn't like his decision to advocate broader hate-crime laws following the murder of Matthew Shepard in neighboring Wyoming.

The conservative intellectuals associated with this evangelical-Catholic alliance are distinct from what is commonly considered the religious right--an informal assemblage of conservative religious groups that include the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, which represent fundamentalist evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pentecostals like Pat Robertson, respectively. But it's clear that once George's colleagues learned of Bush's likely choice of Racicot, they were in a unique position to thwart it. As one prominent Catholic conservative told me, Bush "owed them" for their crucial support during the Republican primary, when his candidacy appeared to be in jeopardy following his decision to speak at Bob Jones University. Quite simply, they did not yet consider the debt repaid. They still don't--although the sacrifice of Racicot might count as an interest payment on the principal.

George's alliance is just one camp in a spectrum of religious social conservatives who are frequently and erroneously lumped together but often operate on their own. Such was the case with Ashcroft's nomination. While Catholic social conservatives aborted Racicot's nomination, they weren't responsible for Ashcroft's; he was nominated following a strong lobbying effort from fundamentalist Protestant evangelicals. Like most social conservatives, the Catholic intellectuals share Ashcroft's views on abortion and gays; but his nomination wasn't a direct appeal to Catholics. And although Bush "bought himself a lot of goodwill" across the Republican Party with his cabinet appointments, in the words of one conservative commentator, Catholic conservatives feel he hasn't directly addressed their concerns. Bush is still being pressured to do so. He has already spoken individually with several important leaders of the Church; on January 31, he met with a group of about 35 Catholic intellectuals. This influence might pay off in Bush's selection of a surgeon general and a director of the National Institutes of Health.

This pattern could continue. One difficulty Catholic conservatives faced during the campaign and after the election was the lack of a visible leader through which to leverage political power. The man who would previously have articulated their position, Cardinal John O'Connor, died early in the campaign. His successor, Cardinal Edward Egan, possesses the conservative credentials to inherit that mantle, but he has not yet established himself as O'Connor's political equal. In the interim, Catholic intellectuals, who are always the force behind the Church's leadership, continued to exert political influence over Bush. In fact, the very absence of public scrutiny helped them in their cause.

The success of religious conservatives in preventing Racicot's nomination demonstrates that in this new era of ostensible bipartisanship, a behind-the-scenes approach is more effective than the public threats of hard-right conservatives like House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. When DeLay boldly announced to The Washington Post in December that Republicans would force through their agenda regardless of the circumstances surrounding Bush's victory, both parties hurriedly denounced his comments. DeLay's behavior, rather than pressuring Bush to the right, alienated moderates and had the ultimate effect of burnishing the new president's moderate credentials.

Religious conservatives recognize that their clandestine strategy requires a disciplined anonymity. Almost all of those contacted for this article declined to be interviewed or asked that they not be identified by name. Keeping in mind the example of DeLay, they recognize that they're powerful insofar as they don't draw too much attention to themselves and taint Bush as extremist. For this reason, they did not publicize the fact that they'd sunk Racicot's nomination; indeed, they took pains to conceal it. "The odd thing is, and this is unique to politics, when you succeed at something like that you become more powerful," says a leading conservative intellectual close to George. "By being quiet about it and being successful, they're more powerful than they otherwise would have been." They can keep Bush beholden to them, in part by maintaining such discretion.

By working with Bush under the radar, Catholic conservatives enable him to appear free of right-wing influence. In other words, allowing Bush to maintain the image of a "uniter" able to quell his party's extremists puts him in the best position to govern effectively; as an effective leader, in turn, Bush is best positioned to advance conservative religious causes.

This stealthy approach paid dividends during Ashcroft's confirmation battle. Liberal interest groups drew attention to Ashcroft's unsettling record on abortion, homosexuality, and race, and questioned how his religious commitment shaped his understanding of the law. But while Ashcroft's personal religious conservatism came under the microscope, his ties--and, by extension, Bush's ties--to religious conservatives did not. What escaped notice during the hearings was this obvious but significant fact: Religious conservatives weren't just happy with Ashcroft's nomination; they were instrumental in bringing it about.

When word of George's handiwork in blocking Racicot first appeared in The Weekly Standard, Rove frantically called reporters and denied the story. Religious activists, after all, still create unease among the public. Rove's furious effort to maintain Bush's moderate front only underscores the message that conservatives who hope to curry favor with the new president had better respect these new rules. Social conservatives have adapted better and more quickly than others to the era of divided government and the public moderation it requires. They didn't lose influence in the 2000 election; they simply learned to wield it quietly. ¤