Will Bush Cabinet picks get Borked?

Liberal Democrats are gearing up to oppose the president-elect's most conservative choices. Here's a list of the most vulnerable nominees, and their enemies.

Published January 6, 2001 1:18AM (EST)

President-elect George W. Bush's Cabinet has been getting the once-over from liberal advocacy organizations, and most of the reviews have been fair to bad. With the exception of Democrat Norman Mineta, the transportation appointee, each nominee has been blasted by someone as too pro-business, too anti-abortion rights, too down on affirmative action or just plain too conservative.

But loudly opposing the whole Bush slate, or a large chunk of it, would look petty, and also be doomed to failure. So politically seasoned organizations have chosen to pick their battles carefully. Here are the Bush picks who have already been served notice that their confirmation road will be rocky, ranked according to their "Borkability" -- the appointee's chances of being turned back at Congress' door. The partial list of foes has been limited to organizations that have gone on the record opposing the nominees, and is likely to expand as confirmation hearings approach.

Attorney general: John Ashcroft
The seasoned Missouri pol who just lost his Senate seat to Jean Carnahan is considered to be the most pure ideological conservative of Bush's Cabinet choices. The same views that endear him to "family values" advocates in the GOP have made him a big target for left-leaning advocacy groups.

What's the fuss?
Civil rights organizations don't like his strong views against affirmative action, his opposition to the federal judgeship of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, his opposition to busing programs, the honorary degree he accepted from Bob Jones University in 1999 or his links to neo-Confederate organizations.

The pro-abortion rights community says Ashcroft made all the wrong moves on the issue, including his support for a "Human Life Amendment" to the Constitution, that would outlaw abortion under circumstances including the rape, incest and endangered health of the mother. Ashcroft opposed including coverage of contraceptives in federal health plans and accepted an award from the American Life League, an anti-abortion rights organization that decries some common forms of birth control like the pill and the IUD as abortifacient.

The Sierra Club is weighing in against Ashcroft as well, citing his Senate votes against providing resources to enforce clean air and water laws. And the gun control community isn't happy with Ashcroft's cozy relationship with the NRA. In 1999, he recorded radio ads in support of permitting Missourians to carry concealed weapons, voted against the assault weapons ban and voted against closing the so-called gun show loophole that allows people to buy firearms at those events without undergoing a background check.


  • National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League
  • People for the American Way
  • Planned Parenthood
  • The Sierra Club
  • Violence Policy Center (gun control organization)

    Perceived Borkability: High
    Though some liberal activists have already resigned themselves to Ashcroft's eventual success in the confirmation process, others are ready to fight his appointment to the bitter end. The range of groups that oppose Ashcroft could give moderate Democrats cover for voting Ashcroft down without being perceived as captives of a single special interest group. Even those opponents who believe Ashcroft will ultimately win think that the fight can put an early end to Bush's honeymoon.

    Secretary of labor: Linda Chavez
    A former Democrat, Chavez was converted to Republicanism by Ronald Reagan and served as his chief of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1986, she fought for a Senate seat against Maryland political veteran Barbara Mikulski. Chavez lost badly, but the race raised her national profile. Since then, she's stayed close to the spotlight as a commentator and as the director of a public policy group.

    What's the fuss?
    Putting Chavez in charge of labor laws, according to union activists, would be like putting Col. Sanders in charge of the hen house. She's shown a strong pro-business bent on a host of workplace issues, and has likened the federal minimum wage law to communism. In addition, the Center for Equal Opportunity, the Washington think tank Chavez leads, advocates eliminating affirmative action and bilingual education, positions that have earned Chavez the enmity of most Democratic black and Latino politicians. Eventually, Chavez may also be a target for some gay-rights advocates for her sympathy for programs such as Exodus that seek to convert gays to straight life.

    Perceived Borkability: Medium
    Chavez has left a long paper trail, with plenty for her enemies to dislike. Advocates, after all, are rarely as temperate in their public statements as politicians who know every word may haunt them later. Although Bush believes that her Hispanic heritage gives her diversity appeal, Chavez has hardly been universally embraced by that community. It is widely stated, for instance, that she doesn't speak Spanish. Finally, a few Democrats have whispered that Chavez just doesn't have the experience to lead the Labor Department, and lack of experience has proved to be an effective cover for halting the confirmation of ideological foes.

    Secretary of the interior: Gale Norton
    As the first female attorney general of Colorado, Norton was considered a political trailblazer. But environmentalists worry that her pro-property-rights sympathies mean that access to public lands will be sold to the highest bidder.

    What's the fuss?
    Norton strongly supported her state's "self-audit" laws, regulations that allowed corporations to evaluate their own compliance with environmental regulations, and grant immunity from lawsuits and fines to any company that owns up to violations and fixes them. She also founded the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, an organization that environmental activists have accused of "greenwashing" -- helping to mask anti-environmental records of GOP politicians. Norton is also in favor of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a Bush campaign proposal that was strongly decried by the environmental community. She may, as well, suffer from guilt by association, as she worked under Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt, still a favorite beast of environmentalists.

    While the greens fume, some gay-rights advocates have begun to raise warning flags on her nomination as well. She led Colorado's battle to protect Amendment 2, the anti-gay-rights referendum adopted by state voters but ultimately overturned in 1996 by the U.S. Supreme Court.


  • Environmental Working Group
  • The Sierra Club

    Perceived Borkability: Low
    Environment-friendly Democrats will say that Norton is bad for the air, bad for the water, bad for national parks and wildlife -- and will then shrug their shoulders, leaving "no" votes to the very brave or the very extreme. Especially with Christie Todd Whitman nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency, moderate Republicans can claim that the Earth will not go wholly unprotected under Bush. To stop Norton, the Democrats would have to stay solid in opposition, and risk being called obstructionists.

    Health and Human Services: Tommy Thompson
    The Wisconsin governor's welfare reform package practically defined "compassionate conservativism" before Bush the younger was on the political map. While he has earned tepid praise from the gay advocacy organization, Human Rights Campaign, for his work on behalf of HIV/AIDS treatment and research programs, the abortion-rights community hasn't been convinced that he's much of a moderate on issues that concern them.

    What's the fuss?
    Abortion rights organizations believe that Thompson is better than Ashcroft, but not much. He would exempt victims of rape or incest from laws banning abortions, and has supported family-planning education in his state. He has also angered some anti-abortion groups by supporting research using fetal stem cells. However, Thompson backs the kind of regulations that pro-choicers claim are slowly eroding the rights guaranteed by Roe vs. Wade. He opposes so-called partial birth abortions, and as governor, signed laws criminalizing the procedure. Thompson also approved legislation that mandates 24-hour waiting periods for abortions, and a law that requires minors who seek an abortion to obtain written consent from a parent or a family member over the age of 25. In addition, Thompson opposes buffer zones that keep anti-abortion protesters at least 15 feet away from clinics.


  • Planned Parenthood

    Perceived Borkability: Very Low
    Thompson is most likely to benefit from both parties' stated aims to work with principled politicians from the other side, especially so long as his opponents can find at least one thing to praise in his record. Furthermore, it would be difficult to paint him as an anti-abortion extremist as long as Ashcroft is around, and moderate Democrats probably wouldn't want to risk being labeled pro-abortion absolutists. Some Democrats will grouse, but most will keep quiet, and then loudly congratulate themselves for working well with the GOP.

  • By Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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