John Ashcroft: The Man the Left Loves to Hate

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John Ashcroft (l) visits with Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.)

How do liberals loathe John Ashcroft?

Let us count the ways.

Since he was first mentioned as a candidate for President-elect Bush's Cabinet, Ashcroft has inspired a groundswell of left-wing hand-wringing not seen since Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing a decade ago. The former Missouri senator, whose seat was won in November by the late Mel Carnahan and is now occupied by Carnahan's widow, has a long and well-known history of conservative boosterism — but until recently, his ideology never made national headlines.

Is ideology a nomination-killer?

Now up for the post of U.S. attorney general, and facing confirmation hearings beginning January 16, the devoutly evangelical Ashcroft is primed for what looks like an epic, front-page battle with liberal groups, who oppose virtually every opinion he holds dear. Most politicians agree that ideology alone cannot destroy a nomination — even for the post of the nation's top law enforcement official — but many of his opponents worry that Ashcroft's zealous views could influence his enforcement of existing laws. Needless to say, feverish dirt-digging has commenced in hopes of landing a bit of damaging information.

Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, expressed the fears of many in her party when she said last week that if Ashcroft is confirmed, "there are solid reasons to expect that the people of this country will not be protected and served as they exercise their civil rights, human rights, their right to choose, their right to be free of gun violence and their right to a clean environment." More than 200 organizations have joined forces to form "Stop Ashcroft," a campaign to "educate the American public, the media and the United States Senate about Senator Ashcroft's relevant public record." They're hoping, organizers say, to characterize Ashcroft's ideology as far to the right of mainstream America's — and to underscore the sentiment that by nominating Ashcroft, Bush flew in the face of every "compassionate" promise he made on the campaign trail.

The liberal case against Ashcroft

Here are a few of the issues that are galvanizing America's liberal groups against Ashcroft.

Abortion rights Vehemently opposed to abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, Ashcroft has earned the political and financial support of the Christian Coalition for his views. He has been quoted saying that he advocates a "human life amendment" that would ban certain kinds of commonly used birth control. At a press conference January 9, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), called Ashcroft's nomination a "risk to the fundamental rights of every American woman." Abortion-rights activists worry Ashcroft could turn a blind eye to clinic violence, or otherwise use his post to undermine the intent of Roe v. Wade.

Civil rights Once the sole provenance of the NAACP et al., this umbrella term now includes gay and lesbian rights groups — all of whom share a fervent opposition to Ashcroft. The former senator is opposed to affirmative action and earned the deep distrust of black leaders by toppling the federal appointment of Missouri Supreme Court judge Ronnie White (who is black, and who will reportedly testify at Ashcroft's confirmation hearing). Gay rights groups aren't pleased with Ashcroft either: During Senate debate on the Defense of Marriage Act, Ashcroft, who supported the bill, argued that gay behavior is a sin because the Bible says so. He also opposed the nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg, reportedly because Hormel is openly gay. Many have expressed concern that Ashcroft will refuse to prosecute federal hate crimes or civil rights violations.

Gun control During his Senate career, Ashcroft opposed nearly every gun control measure introduced by his colleagues, including a ban on assault rifles, according to Handgun Control, a gun control group based in Washington. His opponents note that Ashcroft was given an "A" rating by the National Rifle Association and received nearly half a million dollars in campaign funds from the NRA and other gun groups during his reelection bid last fall — and they worry those debts could affect his enforcement and adoption of existing and pending gun laws.

The environmentDaniel Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, calls Ashcroft's record "extremely anti-environment," emphasizing the former senator's past votes against taking arsenic out of drinking water, for weakening the Clean Air and Water acts and allowing mining companies to dump cyanide in public lands. The environmental movement is primarily joining the fight against Ashcroft as a warm-up for their real battle: To unseat Interior Secretary–designate Gale Norton.

Separation of church and state Ashcroft's visits to Bob Jones University (where he has received an honorary degree), his personal associations with evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and his support of public funding for "faith-based" charity work leads many civil liberties groups to worry about an influx of so-called "Christian" ideology into public life.

Will Bush bail or tough it out?

If these groups manage to turn up substantial heat under Ashcroft (as some observers predict they will), Bush will face a crisis of faith, so to speak. Will he stand by his man, absorbing the political body blows as a form of payback to the right-wing religious organizations that secured his election? Or will he eventually decide that defending Ashcroft's potentially divisive record could cost more political capital than he's willing to lose so early in the game?