Dems fold on Ashcroft

And party activists are angry. James Carville says Democrats are giving their "unelected president" a free ride.

Published February 1, 2001 11:59PM (EST)

At the top of the Oppose Ashcroft Web site, a heading announces, "It's not too late!" Yet representatives of People for the American Way, the organization that sponsors the site, are telling a different story about the nomination battle against Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft.

"We worked hard and did everything we could," declares Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of the group. In addition to putting up the Web site, PFAW helped direct the coalition of civil-rights, abortion-rights and other left-leaning advocacy groups to oppose Ashcroft. They've supplied vast amounts of anti-Ashcroft research material to the former Missouri senator's ideological foes and to the press, and last week they literally delivered a ton of petitions to Congress signed electronically by those who oppose his nomination.

But that hasn't added up to a win. For all the Republican protests about the pressure applied by "liberal extremists," Democratic senators are not lining up to fight Ashcroft to the finish. By Wednesday morning, slightly more than 20 Democratic senators had declared their intention to vote against Ashcroft, with five Dems pledging their support to him. Even if every undecided Democrat weighed in against Ashcroft, he would still easily claim the top Justice Department post.

And that's left Democratic activists frustrated at the party's quick retreat on Ashcroft. James Carville, political strategist for former President Clinton, believes the Democrats are playing nice with Bush for no good reason. "I'm kind of unimpressed with the argument that an unelected president has the right to have people in the Cabinet who always agree with his philosophy," Carville says. "People rejected that philosophy at the polls."

Standing up against Ashcroft, Carville claims, could be the first litmus test of the Democratic presidential primary race of 2004. If so, "[Sen. Russ] Feingold just proved that he was serious when he said he didn't want to run for president," Carville says.

Feingold, D-Wis., was the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted contrary to his party line, siding with the nine Republicans on the panel to recommend Ashcroft to lead the Justice Department. In his statement during the committee hearing Wednesday, the Wisconsin senator said that, despite his objections to Ashcroft's positions on abortion rights and civil rights, it was important to the political future of Democrats not to stand against a nomination for purely ideological reasons. Feingold also urged his colleagues to give deference to the president in choosing like-minded Cabinet members.

That didn't sit well with ideological Democrats. Bob Fertik, co-founder of, says, "[Feingold] said that he might be naive, but we think he's just plain delusional. The Republicans are run like the Mafia; they'll do just what Lott and Bush tell them to."

There is, of course, another way to keep Ashcroft from winning confirmation. It takes 51 senators to confirm Ashcroft, but 40 votes in the Senate would allow a Democrat to filibuster the nomination into oblivion. However, even Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a liberal stalwart who once expressed willingness to blow away Ashcroft with his hot air, has backed off a filibuster threat.

"I can see why they would do it," Mincberg says of the Democrats who won't support an anti-Ashcroft filibuster. "It's so early in the administration, and I understand that Mrs. Carnahan made a personal appeal to keep a filibuster from going forward."

Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Missouri Senate seat that Ashcroft lost to her deceased husband, Mel Carnahan. The margin of victory was extremely slim and the election of a dead man to the Senate was unprecedented, as was the appointment of his widow. In addition there were questions about whether polling places in highly Democratic St. Louis were kept open illegally after closing time to seal a Carnahan victory. Though some of his GOP colleagues encouraged him to fight the vote, Ashcroft declined the battle, an act of civility that Carnahan seems eager to return. In that spirit, she asked Kennedy not to filibuster Ashcroft.

Fertik is unimpressed by all this bipartisan congeniality, insisting that the Democrats need to spend more energy fighting for their base instead of playing ball with Bush. "The Republicans have control of the White House and the House of Representatives. The only place where the Democrats can have an influence over what Bush is going to do is in the Senate," Fertik declares. Though he applauds the independence of Democrats in theory, he believes that they must stick together to keep Bush from rolling over them. "If there are 40 senators who are willing to stop Ashcroft, they need to do everything that they can to do it."

And Fertik's group wants to help stiffen the Democrats' resolve. In addition to supporting the Ashcroft Lied Web site, Fertik's organization is also encouraging Ashcroft foes to send their senators "Filibuster Care Packages," gift baskets full of goodies that any filibustering senator could use, like throat lozenges, gourmet coffee and chocolate. The hope is that the baskets would show fence-sitting Democrats that the grass-roots supporters of their party want action.

By Alicia Montgomery

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

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