Conservatives flex muscles over Ashcroft

In a pugnacious appearance, right-wing groups serve notice to "liberal ideologues" that there's a new sheriff in town.

Published January 12, 2001 2:00AM (EST)

Conservative advocacy organizations want the world to know that Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft has some friends. Thursday morning, the Concerned Women of America convened its own rainbow tribe of pro-Ashcroft crusaders with representatives from more than a dozen groups denouncing Ashcroft's opponents as an out-of-control left-wing Borking brigade.

"John Ashcroft is a man of integrity with experience and impeccable credentials," said Wendy Wright, director of communications for the CWA. "But since he has been nominated as attorney general, he has come under a vicious attack that is meant to destroy him as a person." Those vicious destroyers went largely unnamed at the press conference, with the exception of People for the American Way.

But the coalition doesn't express any real worry about whether Ashcroft will prevail. "This is a question about whether he is going to get 54 votes, or 58 votes or 60 votes," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, echoing Republican Senate leader Trent Lott's assertion that all 50 GOP senators will vote to confirm Ashcroft. A simple majority of 51 is needed for confirmation; even if all 50 Democrats voted against Ashcroft, Vice President Dick Cheney would be able to cast the tie breaker. If 41 Democrats decided to filibuster, they could effectively kill the nomination -- 60 votes are required to override a filibuster.

Confident of a win, the groups seemed mainly determined to remind liberals that the sun is setting on the Clinton era and that there is a new sheriff in town.

Heather Cirmo, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, says that Democrats don't want to acknowledge that the conservatives are back at the wheel, and that Bush has the right to make his Cabinet as conservative as he wants. "There's no reason that a conservative should have to appoint moderates or try to please liberals," she said.

To others, the battle is less political than spiritual. Several members of the conservative coalition backing Ashcroft accused his opponents of using their stated concern over civil rights and abortion rights to mask their true objections to Ashcroft: his godliness and his belief in law and order. According to Beverly LaHaye, CWA's founder, anti-Ashcroft groups know that he understands the "role of government is to protect the innocent and punish the guilty." LaHaye continued, "Tragically, this view is not in vogue among liberal ideologues. And that is why they have targeted him for personal destruction."

There are, however, some logical hops, skips and jumps necessary to turn the battle over Ashcroft's nomination into a battle of good vs. evil. For example, conservatives try to distill the racial charges swirling around Ashcroft to just one name: Ronnie White, the black Missouri Supreme Court justice whom Ashcroft denied a seat on the federal bench.

"Extreme left-wing groups smear Ashcroft as a 'racist' because his concerns about victims' rights and upholding the death penalty led him to oppose one African-American judge," read an e-mail alert from Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson. LaHaye also said that the the issue of race and Ashcroft was all about White, and White was the real villain of the piece. "Ashcroft voted against that judge because of the lack of content of Ronnie White's character, not the color of his skin," she said. (In fact, many of Ashcroft's opponents have charged that he opposed White not out of racism, but political opportunism.)

Yet none of the conservative groups addressed the other concerns about Ashcroft's record on race, like his close ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, or his 1998 interview with the neo-Confederate journal Southern Partisan. Rita Thompson, head of the ad hoc pro-Ashcroft group Coalition of People of Color for a Clear Voice, didn't know anything about his links to the neo-Confederate movement.

The CWA's Wright also claimed that environmental and gun control activists who were bashing Ashcroft were, at best, victims of political brainwashing: "I think they're just listening to somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about," she said of the Sierra Club and the Million Moms. When asked about the specific grievances the two groups had, however, Wright said, "I don't know. That's not really my area."

Anita Blair, president of the Independent Women's Forum, thinks that the hunger for publicity is really what's holding together the different wings of the anti-Ashcroft coalition. "You need an enemy to motivate people to raise money," she said. "Ashcroft is their enemy."

By Alicia Montgomery

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

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