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Civil liberties groups have vowed to fight tooth and nail against Ashcroft's confirmation by the Senate. Related Gully Coverage

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ashcroft and bush

President-to-be George W. Bush and his nominee for attorney general, outgoing senator John Ashcroft (left). Dec. 22. Adrees Latif

United States

Grilling Mr. Ashcroft

by Toby Eglund

DECEMBER 27, 2000. The first salvoes of a bitter war to control the U.S. judiciary have just been shot. President-to-be George W. Bush has nominated ultra-conservative John Ashcroft as the next attorney general. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), People for the American Way, and other civil liberties groups, have vowed to fight tooth and nail against his confirmation by the Senate.

So far, no senator has promised to oppose Mr. Ashcroft, a former colleague. And, at least in public, the democratic leadership is piously talking through both sides of their mouths. "I do not intend to lead a fight against him," Senator Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said on Sunday. "We'll have a very fair hearing," he said. But, he warned, "there'll be tough questions." It "will not be a pushover hearing."

How tough depends on whether or not civil rights groups manage to mobilize Americans still dazed from November's bait and switch election fiasco. Some opponents privately say it is unlikely that the Ashcroft's nomination can be blocked. They just see this as an opportunity to flex their collective muscles for upcoming, and in their eyes more crucial, Supreme Court and federal judgeship nomination fights.

This strategy reflects the unwillingness, or inability, of major civil rights groups to pressure Democrats, with whom they are perhaps too closely aligned. It also reflects other political realities: only one nomination (coincidentally, by the older Bush) has been turned down by the Senate in about forty years. On the other hand, over the past six years, Republicans have forced a number of Clinton nominees to be withdrawn and have successfully blocked many appointments to the federal bench. On Sunday, Leahy suggested that Democrats would not follow that bad example.

bill clintonWhile this is commendable behavior in the abstract, politically it points to the Democrats' main weakness. Republicans don't blink. Democrats do. With crafty Bill Clinton at the helm, a man who could blink so fast he'd make his enemies dizzy, Republican inflexibility destroyed Newt Gingrich's "revolution," averted impeachment, humiliated the GOP congressional leadership every time they attempted to tie up the budget, and weakened the Republican right, ironically making them see a Bush Trojan Horse restoration as their best, and only, option to recapture power. With bumbling, semi-tough Al Gore at the helm, the blinking match gave us Florida, and the Bush II White House.

For whatever it's worth, the Ashcroft war of words has already begun. "This is truly an astonishingly bad nomination," said Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, promising that the anti-Ashcroft mobilization "would be unprecedented in its scope."

He added, "with the possible exception of Senator Jesse Helms, I do not believe anyone in the United States Senate has a more abysmal record on civil rights and civil liberties... this nomination is an insult to every person who is committed to our nation's promise of equal justice for all."

More poignantly, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume remarked that Mr. Ashcroft had received an "F" on the last three NAACP report cards.

In Depth

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