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John Ashcroft: Attorney General from the Right
The Reverend Pat Robertson and other Christian Right leaders received an early Christmas present on Friday, December 22, when President-elect George W. Bush named Senator John Ashcroft as his nominee for attorney general. The person that many on the Christian Right, including Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, thought best suited to be president, is back in business after having lost his Senate seat this fall to the late-Missouri Governor Mel Car- nahan, whose wife assumed that seat.
John Ashcroft, 58, the son and grandson of Assembly of God clergymen, is a non-drinking, non-smoking, piano playing singer of gospel music, who played rugby at Yale and went on to law school at the University of Chicago. He was a two-term governor of Missouri and was the state's attorney general from 1976 until 1985. He is probably best known for introducing the concept of “charitable choice” into the 1996 welfare “reform” act. He is also vehemently opposed to gun controls of any type and is fervently anti-abortion.
Michael P. Farris, longtime leader of the home-school movement and president of Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County, Virginia told the Washington Post that he was “ecstatic” about Bush's pick. “Ashcroft is a hero to conservatives,” Farris said. “He has a long track record of supporting the conservative agenda.”
Flash back to 1998. Christian right activists within the Republican Party are still bitter about the failed candidacy of Bob Dole, upset about what they perceive to be their “disenfranchisement” by Republican Party leadership. Angry speeches are delivered, threats to “bolt the Party” are issued, furious letters exchanged, and secret strategy sessions held. Christian right leaders begin shopping around for an ideologically friendly presidential candidate for the year 2000. Many of them settle on Missouri Senator John Ashcroft. Ashcroft's campaign got an early boost from Pat Robertson's family who sent his Spirit of America PAC a check for $10,000. Several right-wing columnists wrote favorably about Ashcroft's possibilities. Jeff Jacoby, in the Washington Times, called Ashcroft “a born-and-bred son of the Christian right, the only Republican eyeing the White House who belongs to what is arguably the most important, most unified element of the Reagan coalition.” Terrence P. Jeffrey, who managed Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign, noted in the conservative weekly Human Events that Ashcroft's early showing in a South Carolina straw poll “was another sure step forward in the senator's strategy to preemptively define himself as the first choice of GOP conservatives in the 2000 presidential primaries.”
These rave reviews from hard right GOPers were clearly based on Ashcroft's record. In his career he has been anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-gambling, in favor of killing the National Endowment for the Arts, a supporter of the death penalty, and he voted for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. He was one of a handful of Senators who consistently received top ratings from the Christian Coalition's congressional scorecard.
In trying to build support and raise campaign money, Ashcroft staked out the “moral authority” issue. He repeatedly attacked president Clinton, raising the question of impeachment just days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. At one time, he called the president a sexual “predator.” In November 1998, he sent out a direct mail appeal urging signatures on a “Bill Clinton Must Resign” petition.
However, the key to Ashcroft's program was what he called “unleashing the cultural remedy.” Concretely, this meant spreading the good news about “charitable choice” to other government services besides welfare reform. In 1998, Ashcroft introduced a bill that would allow religious groups to receive “government funding to serve drug addicts, homeless people, juvenile delinquents, and troubled families.” The Reverend Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Ashcroft's proposal an attempt to “run a bulldozer through the wall of separation between church and state,”
Given that Ashcroft needed to raise some $20 million to run for the White House, it was not surprising that he dropped out of the race in early January 1999, citing the lack of funds, saying that he had decided to focus his attention on winning a second Senate term. At the time, Carole Shields of People for the American Way commented that “Senator Ashcroft personifies the Religious Rights no-compromise brand of politics.” Ashcroft's “no-compromise brand of politics” was most evident during the battle over the confirmation of African American Ronnie White for a federal judgeship, which Ashcroft blocked. During the press conference announcing Ashcroft's nomination, when asked about the Ronnie White matter President-elect Bush replied that he was convinced that Ashcroft acted properly. Ashcroft also unsuccessfully tried to block David Satcher, President Clinton's pick for surgeon general. Given his record on the White and Satcher confirmation, one can only wonder what to expect from the next attorney general in the way of civil rights?
After his defeat in November, a Handgun Control (HC) news release noted that Ashcroft had “voted against Handgun Control positions 13 out of 13 times, including votes against child safety locks and closing the gun-show loopholes.” Although he tried to distance himself from the National Rifle Association, HC reports that the NRA spent close to $400,000 on behalf of his reelection campaign, and “gave him an A grade in their 2000 Election report card.”
Another major area of concern revolves around how Ashcroft will deal with abortion issues. In an April 1998 “Meet the Press” appearance, Ashcroft said that if he had one opportunity to pass a single law, “I would fully recognize the constitutional right to life of every unborn child, and ban every abortion except for those medically necessary to save the life of the mother.” Z
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative movements.