John Ashcroft's nomination battle moves out of the papers and press conferences and into a Senate hearing room at 1:30 p.m. EST on Tuesday. Ashcroft's opponents insist that they are trying to save the country from an unevolved conservative zealot, while his allies assert that his opponents are liberal extremists expressing sour grapes over George W. Bush's narrow election victory.
Though ideological questions have been standard procedure in confirmation hearings ever since Robert Bork was rejected as a prospective Supreme Court justice, Ashcroft can expect sharper inquiries about his personal religious faith than perhaps any previous executive branch nominee. A number of those questions stem from a 1999 speech Ashcroft made at Bob Jones University, in which the then Missouri senator declared that "we have no king but Jesus."
Ashcroft's speech at Bob Jones University, notorious for its ban on interracial dating, highlights the hurdles he faces in trying to explain his record on race issues. Civil rights groups are up in arms over Ashcroft's opposition to school desegregation plans in Missouri, his "Bork-ing" of the nomination of African-American Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench and his coziness with neo-Confederate and white supremacist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens. Perhaps with an eye toward that criticism, Ashcroft denounced racial profiling during an appearance Monday with the president-elect.
Yet despite the pressure from constituents, disorganization and division within the Democratic Party could hinder its attempts to scuttle Ashcroft's nomination. What's more, the threat that the GOP would view a Bork-ing attempt as a sign that the Democrats don't play well with others -- and would prefer to scrap the historic power-sharing agreement in the Senate -- may lead some Democrats to support Ashcroft's confirmation.
Ideological issues have traditionally been secondary to ethical concerns when nominees are refused Senate approval. So Ashcroft's ideological foes are drawing some hope from a possible "smoking gun" in his record, a 1983 affidavit that raises suspicions that Ashcroft used resources from his public office to run a political campaign.
Other critics hope that incidents like the Bob Jones speech and Ashcroft's appearance in a 1987 video denouncing a "New World Order"-style conspiracy will increase the zealot factor, finally branding Ashcroft as too far out of the mainstream for the attorney general job.
-- Alicia Montgomery [6 a.m. PST, Jan. 16, 2001]