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Confirmation process should avoid the race card


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001

It is once again time to play the Washington version of Survivor, reality politics better known as the Senate confirmation process. It used to be family entertainment in the good old days when scrutiny was light, civility reigned on Capitol Hill and a nominee's taste in porno movies was off limits. These days the confirmation process has become an arena for ideological warfare, where old scores are settled and new resentments are born. Its victims complain of being "Borked," of "high-tech lynchings" and of the "politics of personal destruction." As brutal and messy as it is, however, the process serves as an important check on a president's power, which is what the founders intended.

As Bill Clinton well knows and President-elect George W. Bush is learning, the confirmation season is a time when Washington's sensitivity meter is set at its highest. Old speeches and writings are combed for the slightest hint of insensitivity on litmus-test issues. Sometimes a nominee who is clearly qualified for a Cabinet position trips on a personal matter, as Zoe Baird, Clinton's first choice for attorney general, did when it was revealed that she had employed two illegal immigrants and had failed to pay Social Security taxes on them. Since then, nominees are vetted for "nanny problems." Linda Chavez, Bush's nominee for secretary of Labor, bit the dust last week after she failed to disclose to the Bush-Cheney transition team that she had taken in an illegal immigrant 10 years ago as an act of compassion.

Now Democrats are mobilizing to try to defeat two other controversial nominees, Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Gale A. Norton, for attorney general and Interior secretary respectively. There is a strong case to be made against Ashcroft and Norton, but Senate Democrats and their interest-group constituencies -- environmentalists, feminists, gay rights groups and civil rights activists -- risk hurting their cause if they insist on playing the race card. This pair would never be mistaken for champions of individual and civil rights, but neither are they Jim Crow segs or defenders of slavery, as some of their shrillest critics have suggested. That said, both could benefit from some sensitivity training.

Norton is a former attorney general of Colorado and a protege of former Interior Secretary James Watt (a radioactive name in the environmental community). Her thing is states' rights, the banner the Dixiecrats of yore flew over their defense of legal segregation. When Norton champions states' rights, she's not talking about minority rights but the right of states to tell the federal government to butt out of their environmental business. The Washington Post reported that Norton, in a 1996 speech, said that states' rights were diminished by the loss of the Confederacy in the Civil War. The issue of slavery, she explained, had undercut a defense of states' rights. Critics called her remarks "highly divisive" and worse.

Hey folks, it's the environment, stupid. You're not going to convince people that Norton longs for the days of slavery. Keep the focus on her anti-environmental record.

Ashcroft also is drawing fire for racial insensitivity. Here's his rap sheet: Spoke at Bob Jones University (so did candidate Bush) and accepted an honorary degree from this fundamentalist Christian school that until last year banned interracial dating and views Roman Catholicism as a "cult." Opposed a voluntary school busing plan in his state and gave an interview to the Southern Partisan, a magazine that defends the honor of the leaders of the Confederacy. Had only good things to say about the magazine, including, "Your magazine also helps set the record straight."

No doubt, Ashcroft will be asked at this week's confirmation hearing to set the record straight on these and other matters, including his role in persuading Senate Republicans to reject Ronnie White, a black judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, for a federal district judgeship. But from everything I know, White was the victim of sleazy politics, not racism, and for that Ashcroft should be shamed. His defenders point out that as governor of Missouri, Ashcroft named eight African-Americans to judgeships, including the first black member of the state appeals court. As a senator, Ashcroft says he voted to confirm 26 of the 28 African-Americans President Clinton nominated to the federal judiciary. That's good to know, but Ashcroft still has some explaining to do about the White nomination. Ashcroft will get a fairer hearing from his former Senate colleagues than Republicans gave Ronnie White. Of that you can be sure -- senatorial courtesy, collegiality and all that.

A president's choice for attorney general should not be rejected simply because the nominee opposes abortion or affirmative action. But neither should it be rubber-stamped when there are serious questions about whether that nominee is too far to the right -- or left -- to be trusted to enforce the nation's laws fairly and impartially. What we know about Ashcroft's record raises serious doubts about whether he would meet that standard. As attorney general, he would shape the government's arguments in Supreme Court cases, influence the selection of Supreme Court justices and federal judges, appoint U.S. attorneys and decide how vigorously to enforce laws to protect abortion clinics and civil rights.

By all accounts, Ashcroft is a deeply religious man who does not drink, smoke or dance. His personal probity is not in question, but his religion-based approach to issues is. He favors outlawing abortion even in cases of rape and incest and opposes many commonly used contraceptives, including the pill and IUDs. He has a record of hostility to gay rights and indifference to minority rights. It's as if Bush had decided to nominate Jesse Helms for attorney general.

Bush will have the final word on environmental policy in his administration, and Norton will either have to go along or get out. But the attorney general isn't supposed to dance to the president's fiddle. His job is to interpret and enforce the laws without fear or favor. The president can fire his attorney general but rarely does, for the simple reason that it opens him to charges of political interference in the Justice Department. That's why the Senate has a heavy duty in deciding whether John Ashcroft can be trusted to put the law above his own ideological agenda. Before senators make that decision, they owe him a fair and full hearing, which is more than Ronnie White got.

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