Sackcloth and Ashcroft
Democrats abandon the center as Clinton leaves
Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
TWO WEEKS AGO, the largest coalition of activist groups ever assembled declared holy war on George W. Bush's attorney-general nominee, former Missouri senator John Ashcroft -- arch-conservative, abortion foe, and Assemblies of God congregant. The campaign flouted American constitutional practice. Since 1789, only nine cabinet nominees have been rejected in the Senate, and none for ideological reasons in an incoming administration. No matter: Led by People for the American Way, the NAACP, and the National Abortion Rights Action League, literally hundreds of the best-funded and best-trained pressure groups in the country began combing through Ashcroft's record to paint him as an extremist, particularly on matters of abortion and race.
In hearings, Ashcroft gave them all the ammunition they could have wanted. He neither swallowed his words nor muddied his positions, defending himself with more-than-necessary candor and elaborating on his answers even where he wasn't asked to. He even refused to rule out the possibility he would visit Bob Jones University again. Yet, by the end of the first day of testimony, the anti-Ashcroft forces looked as if they had seriously overplayed their hand -- and by the end of hearings last Friday, the Ashcroft story had dropped off the front page. It was a humiliating defeat, and one that threatens to set a pattern.
Paradoxically, Ashcroft opponents got little effect out of their strongest point -- the nominee's hard-line stand on abortion, which he shares with only about one American in eight. True, a flustered Ashcroft wandered from his talking points and described Roe v. Wade as "settled law." But otherwise, so unambiguous was his pro-life stance that there was little to discuss.
And once the anti-Ashcroft activists got off abortion and onto race, they went seriously astray. Those Democrats who assumed a link between Ashcroft's religious practices and the American race problem were operating out of ignorance, barking up the wrong tree. Pentecostalism -- at least as it's practiced in the Assemblies of God, to which Ashcroft belongs -- is Methodist-influenced Christianity with an overlay of African religion. It has its roots in the Los Angeles revivals held by the black Texas minister William Seymour in the first decade of the century. The Assemblies of God repudiated the Ku Klux Klan in 1925 as "un-Christian and un-American," and integration has been the rule rather than the exception among Pentecostal faiths. Pentecostalism, according to historians, has a better claim than jazz to be called the first major black influence on (white) American middle-class life.
California's Barbara Boxer, the first Senate Democrat to openly declare her opposition, typified the confusion. Asked whether she thinks Ashcroft a racist, Boxer replied, "I never use that word against anyone" -- implicitly confirming Republican suspicions that the word, as used by Democrats, had lost all its descriptive power and turned into a mere epithet. "I don't think he's a racist," New York senator Charles Schumer said, "but at certain instances, I don't think he's shown enough sensitivity toward America's long and troubled history with race." This is an extraordinary statement, boiling down to the intolerant and illogical assertion that one should vote against Ashcroft because he didn't care enough that ignorant bigots who knew nothing of his record might slander him. Even "moderate" Indiana senator Evan Bayh, admitting in an op-ed that Ashcroft is "no racist and no monster," announced that he would vote against the senator anyway, on the grounds that Ashcroft would "encourage in others the unyielding extremism they perceive in him." This is an attitude -- yield to the prejudice, rather than correct the misperception -- that ought to horrify the very minorities Bayh claims to speak for.
Unable to sully Ashcroft as a racist, Democratic senators turned to the issues, with catastrophic results. Exhibit A was Ashcroft's leading role in rejecting the federal court nomination of black Missouri judge Ronnie White. True, this wasn't Ashcroft's finest hour. It can be argued (the New Republic did so convincingly in 1999) that Ashcroft's opposition had less to do with the merits of the case than with Missouri politics. But in last week's Senate hearings, Ashcroft won the argument over the merits, too. Was Ashcroft right to urge capital punishment for the quadruple murderer James Johnson (who had traveled to the house of one sheriff's deputy and shot his wife to death in front of her Bible-study group)? Or was White correct to urge that Johnson's case be remanded to the court on a technicality?