n March 1999, Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg made an early survey of Senate races across the country. While there were lots of high-profile candidates to watch, Rothenberg took special notice of the campaign in Missouri, where incumbent Republican senator John Ashcroft faced a challenge from Democratic governor Mel Carnahan. What was interesting about the race, Rothenberg sensed, was not so much the issues involved but the fact that one candidate Carnahan seemed to harbor an unusually intense, almost visceral, hostility toward his opponent. "Carnahan clearly despises Ashcroft," Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call after a talk with the governor. "In fact, I don't think I've ever interviewed a candidate who had more contempt for his opponent than Carnahan expressed when I met with him recently."
Although Carnahan's dislike for his rival was well-known at the very least, he didn't try to hide it from Rothenberg it was not a subject of much public discussion during the race. Many observers simply assumed the hostility was a two-way street: Carnahan hates Ashcroft and Ashcroft hates Carnahan. It was an assumption the Ashcroft campaign found hard to counter. "I kept saying, 'Find me one scrap of evidence that John bears that kind of animus for Mel,'" one Ashcroft ally recalls. "It just wasn't there. It wasn't reciprocated."
Now Carnahan is dead, killed in a plane crash last October. His widow Jean occupies the Senate seat he wanted to win, and Ashcroft, out of office altogether, is the incoming Bush administration's nominee for attorney general. But even though Carnahan is gone, it appears that some of the same old acrimony and even some of the same people behind the Carnahan campaign are now fueling the opposition to Ashcroft's nomination.
It's a set of circumstances that assures this will not be a standard-issue Washington confirmation battle. Unlike any other contested nomination in recent memory, the Ashcroft fight is virtually a replay a recent political campaign. And to the degree that the campaign was animated by an almost irrational hostility toward Ashcroft, there is a vendetta-like quality to the opposition today. Combine that with political opportunism, and you have the Ashcroft confirmation story: What began as one-sided feud is now, in the word of the day, snowballing into wider and wider opposition as Democrats sense the possibility of political gain by attacking the attorney general-designate.
They’re happy for the help. "We've cast our net extremely wide," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way, the liberal advocacy group that last Thursday released a 22-page report critical of Ashcroft's Senate record. "We have gone everywhere we can think of to try to get information about Senator Ashcroft. We've used electronic sources, we've talked to a lot of people from around the country, including in Missouri, and some of those people we've talked to have included at least one person who was formerly associated with the Carnahan campaign. We've asked them to help us find public documents relating to Ashcroft's record." (Mincberg declined to name the former Carnahan staffer who is helping with the research.)
There's no doubt the nomination fight is tracking the same path as the campaign. Take the issue of Ashcroft's 1999 appearance at Bob Jones University, an incident that looms large in the opposition’s case. Carnahan's staff knew about it well before the campaign began. They had combed through the Senate forms all public records that Ashcroft was required to file whenever his travel was paid for by a third party, as it was on the Jones trip. Ashcroft’s appearance was also briefly mentioned in a November 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about congressional travel, and Ashcroft himself quite helpfully wrote about the event in a Christmas card he sent out that year. So it was no secret.
But it was also no issue. Indeed, the Bob Jones appearance seems to illustrate the capriciousness of the case against Ashcroft, because Carnahan’s team, even though they knew about the speech, did not attempt to make anything of it until Bob Jones University arose as an issue in the Republican presidential primaries. It was, apparently, okay up until then.
As Republican senator John McCain bashed George W. Bush about the school, Carnahan decided to demand that Ashcroft return the honorary degree he had been awarded, saying Ashcroft's actions had "offended many Missourians." The controversy involved religion more than race; as McCain had done, Democrats used it to suggest that Ashcroft shared the anti-Catholic views of Bob Jones. Carnahan's aides began a series of non-accusation accusations against Ashcroft, suggesting there was something wrong with the senator without actually saying so. "We do not believe Senator Ashcroft is a bigot," a Carnahan spokesman told the Kansas City Star last February. "We are not accusing Senator Ashcroft of anything, but, frankly, we understand why people at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and elsewhere are reacting strongly to his accepting a degree from this questionable institution."
Ashcroft didn’t help his own case much by pleading ignorance. "I didn't really know they had these positions," he said of Bob Jones during a radio interview in March. "Frankly, I reject the anti-Catholic position of Bob Jones University categorically...the injection of religious bigotry and racial animosity into this campaign is a real shame." In another statement, Ashcroft charged that Carnahan jumped on the issue in an effort to curry favor with Missouri's large Catholic population, which he had offended by vetoing a partial-birth abortion bill.
Ashcroft received what would seem like an enormous boost in March 2000, when Bernard Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston and formerly the bishop of Springfield/Cape Girardeau, Missouri wrote him a letter. “Let me begin by expressing my deep dismay at the unfounded and scurrilous charge that you could possibly harbor anti-Catholic feelings,” the cardinal wrote. “I was astounded to hear that anyone was making such a ridiculous assertion.” But Ashcroft in an act that seems utterly astonishing by contemporary political standards chose not to make the letter public. He didn't like all the religious warfare.
Ashcroft’s opposition to White was based on his opinion in the case of Jimmy Johnson, a Missouri man who in 1991 murdered a sheriff's deputy who had come to Johnson's house to investigate a complaint of domestic violence. Johnson then went on a rampage, killing the wife of the county sheriff and then killing two more deputies, for a total of four murders. Although Johnson was indisputably guilty and was sentenced to death, White alone among judges on Missouri's high court worried that Johnson might deserve a new trial on the grounds of inadequate legal counsel.
Ashcroft said he was stunned not only by the heinousness of the crime but also by White's lone attempt to give Johnson another chance. The issue, he said, was the law. But for Carnahan and his supporters, the issue was race. White is an African-American. Ashcroft opposes him. Enough said. "Yes, I think it had racial overtones. It certainly did," Carnahan told the Washington Post in October 1999. "What Ashcroft did was a disgrace to the Senate, a real cheap shot." In the same story, Missouri Democratic chief Roy Temple, a confidant of Carnahan's and now the chief of staff for senator Jean Carnahan, said, "This was a political drive-by shooting."
As the nomination battle begins, the racial charges are again flying fast. Republicans are trying to rebut the charge of racial bias by airing the awful details and there are many awful details of Johnson's crime. They’ve been poring over the case records and building the argument that White acted completely out of line with judicial standards. "When you read through this record and you come to the part where Ronnie White says, 'This is a very hard case,' you say, what the hell file did he read?" says one Republican working on the matter. “It’s a totally legitimate issue.”
Ashcroft's supporters also point to his record on minority judicial nominations. Taylor Gross, who is handling press on the nomination for the Bush transition team, says that in Ashcroft's time in the Senate, 28 black judges came up for his consideration, and he voted to confirm 26 of them. One of the two nominations he did not support was withdrawn by the president, and the other was Ronnie White. "Ashcroft's record on civil rights has been very strong," says Gross, noting also that Ashcroft's wife Janet is a college professor who for the past several years has taught law at historically black Howard University in Washington.
Evidence like that has made it difficult for some of Ashcroft's critics to charge that he is a racist. Some, but not all. Two weeks before the election, Missouri Democratic Representative Bill Clay, speaking on Fox News, said, “I hope [the voters] would reject the racists like Ashcroft to serve in the United States Senate....Republicans are playing politics with race, and Ashcroft, who led the charge against this honorable black judge in Missouri, has already admitted that he's going to use it in his campaign that he denied a black American the right to sit on the federal bench.”
Clay’s words along with the Carnahan's criticism and the memorable "drive-by shooting" line revived memories of another race-based Democratic attack on a Missouri Republican senatorial candidate just two years earlier. In 1998, the party purchased time on black radio stations in St. Louis for an ad attacking GOP senator Christopher Bond. "When you don't vote, you let another church explode," the ad said, referring to the highly-publicized series of fires at black churches that year. "When you don't vote, you allow another cross to burn."
PFAW's recently released report is the best one-stop collection of the case against Ashcroft. (It covers just Ashcroft’s Senate record; the group is promising another report soon on Ashcroft's pre-Senate years.) Among its topic headings: "Ashcroft's Extremist Record on Judicial and Executive Branch Nominations," "Ashcroft's Negative Record on Civil Rights and Indifference to the Rights of Women and Minorities," "Ashcroft's Extremist Views In Opposition to Abortion and Common Methods of Birth Control," and the catch-all "Other Votes Demonstrating Ashcroft's Rigid Ideology."
Much like Carnahan tried to do in the Bob Jones episode, the anti-Ashcroft forces are attempting to accuse Ashcroft of racism and intolerance without directly accusing him of racism and intolerance. "We do not contend that John Ashcroft is a racist, as some have claimed about him," the PFAW report says. "Rather, the issue here is John Ashcroft's failure to demonstrate a commitment to fairness and equal opportunity...The issue is also John Ashcroft's lack of sensitivity and concern about the rights of women and minorities, as well as his ideological rigidity, all qualities that are antithetical to the ability to serve all Americans as our Attorney General."
But isn't accusing Ashcroft of a "lack of sensitivity" on racial issues the same as saying he is racially biased? "I honestly believe the racism issue is a straw man," says PFAW president Ralph Neas. "We do not contend that John Ashcroft is a racist, but we absolutely do think he's shown an insensitivity." To Neas, alleged insensitivity is all that’s required to sink the nomination. "Our issue here is that he was irresponsible, he was dishonest, and he was mean-spirited in how he characterized Ronnie White," Neas says. "We think the White incident alone disqualifies him from being Attorney General of the United States."
Whatever the intensity, it's certainly true that the confirmation fight's uncanny resemblance to the campaign is not a good omen for the future. “There’s nothing coming out of this pre-confirmation process that is different from what we’ve just lived through in the last 18 months,” says John Hancock, another top Missouri Republican official. “They’re trotting out the same stuff from the campaign. It’s all stuff that was generated by political opposition research.” And, in one final twist, Sen. Jean Carnahan will have to vote on her enemy's nomination. No one could have predicted that the bitter campaign of 2000 would turn into the bitter nomination struggle of 2001. But here we are.