THEY'RE BACK. Like geese that instinctively fly south for the winter, liberal lobbyists are coming out of an eight-year hibernation just as a Republican is set to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hardly heard from since the jihad against Clarence Thomas, these activists have begun whining about cabinet nominees like Linda Chavez, Gale Norton, and Tommy Thompson. But most of their ire, encouraged by a sympathetic media, has been directed at one person: attorney general-designate John Ashcroft.

Mainstream enough to have once been elected head of the National Governors Association, Ashcroft is now being caricatured as a racist who can't be trusted to carry out the attorney general's chief responsibility: enforce the nation's laws. "This nomination," thunders Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, "is an insult to every person who is committed to our nation's promise of equal justice for all."

There's no denying that Ashcroft, like George W. Bush, is a conservative. And while it's true he's the son of a Pentecostal minister, his views were sufficiently palatable to Missouri's middle-of-the-road voters that they elected him statewide five times (his defeat in November followed the death in a plane crash of his opponent, Mel Carnahan, shortly before Election Day). Indeed, having been a U.S. senator, a two-term governor, and a two-term attorney general of his home state, Ashcroft, a graduate of the University of Chicago's law school, is more qualified to lead the Justice Department than any nominee in modern memory. Yet because he has a long record of opposition to liberalism's holy trinity -- abortion, gun control, and government-mandated racial preferences -- he's been deemed unacceptable by the liberal commissars.

Senator Patrick Leahy, for example, the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, has asked how Ashcroft would respond to violence at a Planned Parenthood clinic, implying, without evidence, that he might go easy on the perpetrators. But a number of Democratic senators have refused to join in this vilification. Indeed, one who just left the Senate, Pat Moynihan, says Ashcroft "will be a superb attorney general."

But even if Ashcroft is confirmed, liberal activists think that waging a fight against him will pay future dividends. They believe if they make enough of a stink about Ashcroft, Bush might emerge spooked, and less willing to nominate strong conservatives to the Supreme Court and the federal bench generally or to pursue conservative policies.

There's one other factor at work. "This is an opportunity for liberal advocacy groups to galvanize their base," says Clint Bolick of the libertarian Institute for Justice. "John Ashcroft will be good for their fundraising."

If the liberal direct-mail types strike it rich off Ashcroft -- Jesse Helms just doesn't sell like he used to -- they'll be indebted to pundits and the press. For in the three weeks since Ashcroft was picked, a remarkable caricature of him has emerged, onesided and embellished with outright fabrications.

Routinely, Ashcroft is cast as a racist. No articles have mentioned that he signed Missouri's first hate-crimes law, way back in 1988. And few mention that his wife teaches law at a black university in Washington, D.C., or that he supported 26 of the 28 blacks nominated for the judiciary by the Clinton administration.

As for other examples of distorted coverage of Ashcroft, consider the following:

P A front-page Washington Post editorial masquerading as an article charged Ashcroft with "bare-knuckled opportunism" in his successful effort to prevent the Senate confirmation of a state supreme court judge nominated for a federal judgeship. The piece chastised Ashcroft for distributing information about the judge to law-enforcement groups in Missouri, as if that somehow violated Senate procedure (it didn't). And the writer betrayed his ignorance by describing Ashcroft as "best known as the Senate sponsor of a ban on late-term abortions." This will be news to Rick Santorum, whom any casual observer of Capitol Hill would recognize as the Senate's most active opponent of partial-birth abortion.

P A Newsweek article described Ashcroft as supporting an anti-abortion constitutional amendment "that reached well beyond the agenda of most pro-life groups: eliminating exceptions for rape and incest." In fact, no serious organization dedicated to outlawing abortion favors the rape/incest exception.

P A Salon article about Ashcroft's comments in a Southern cultural journal hinted that his sympathies were suspect, as his home state of Missouri "has a history of coziness with the Confederates."

P Syndicated columnist William Raspberry wrote that Ashcroft "opposed legislation to allow the gathering of racial statistics on traffic stops." Wrong. No legislation was ever voted on, and the Senate sub-committee Ashcroft chaired devoted a hearing to the subject, where he expressed support for such legislation.

P In an appearance on the Fox News Channel, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, spoke darkly of "allegations" that Ashcroft was "one of the only senators" who opposed legislation proposing to give Holocaust victims reparations. This was a nice try to tar Ashcroft with the anti-Semitic brush, but he did no such thing.

P Numerous articles have repeated the charge that Ronnie White, the Missouri supreme court judge Ashcroft opposed for a federal judgeship, dissented in death penalty cases with the same frequency as Ashcroft's five appointees to the same court. Not quite. White dissented in 11.8 percent of such cases, while none of Ashcroft's appointees dissented in more than 2.6 percent of the cases.

The White matter has become the piece de resistance for those dedicated to sinking Ashcroft. (Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice hysterically called Ashcroft's activity a "hate crime" carried out for "political gain.") Overlooked has been that Ashcroft was not alone in his opposition. Senate Republicans are a diverse lot, with moderates like Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jim Jeffords of Vermont breaking ranks almost daily. Yet every GOP senator voted against confirming White, suggesting Ashcroft had a persuasive case against him.

The ferocity of the anti-Ashcroft campaign notwithstanding, it's highly unlikely the Senate will vote down his nomination. A simple majority is all that's needed for confirmation, and no Republicans have indicated a willingness to oppose him (Susan Collins, another Maine moderate, went public with her support last week). And a number of Democrats have made soothing noises, including liberals like Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone and moderates like John Breaux and Bob Torricelli. Ashcroft could also win the support of Joe Lieberman, his college classmate at Yale, who is said to be eager to renew his moderate credentials.

The only way Ashcroft could get knocked out would be for some personal scandal to erupt. That's unlikely. Not only does he not drink or smoke, he doesn't even dance. Now that's conservative.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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