Assessing the Ashcroft Aftershocks

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Attorney General John D. Ashcroft meets with FBI Director Louis Freeh

The debate, from left to right and back again, has already begun. Where is the message in John Ashcroft's confirmation as U.S. attorney general? Was it in the slim margin of his victory? Or in the victory itself?

Liberal analysis favors the former point of view: Democratic Senators (42 of them, at least) banded together to send a sharp warning shot across the White House bow. You want Ashcroft? OK, we'll give him to you in a grudging sign of bipartisanship. Just don't push us. As Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who voted against Ashcroft, told reporters Friday, "We'll cooperate when [future Bush and Ashcroft appointees] are from the center. But we're going to be very concerned when they're from the right."

From the right, of course, the view is much different. There's a quiet but firm belief that Bush won a major victory getting Ashcroft confirmed — and that the only folks who should get a "message" from the process are the Democrats who tried to sink the nomination. It's time, in other words, for Democrats to face up to the fact that they lost the presidential election, they don't have a majority in the Senate, and they are no longer in any position to call the shots.

Back to business

Perhaps it doesn't much matter at this point who gets the fleeting leg up — outside the Beltway, few minds have been or will be changed by a purely academic debate over political one-upmanship. Voters who railed against Ashcroft's nomination will probably continue to feel betrayed by the new president and will rally behind 42 of 50 Senate Democrats. Those who supported Ashcroft's candidacy will feel vindicated, and stand behind his champions in the Senate.

In Washington, the confirmation means a return to the usual routines. After a swift and private confirmation ceremony led by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ashcroft strode purposefully into his new offices at the Justice Department Friday, making the rounds and shaking hands. While aides don't expect his first day on the job to be much more than ceremonial, they insist Ashcroft is raring to get down to work and leave his bitter confirmation battle behind him. "I will confront injustice by leading a professional Justice Department that is free from politics; that is uncompromisingly fair," the new AG said in written remarks released Friday.

What's on Ashcroft's plate?

Ironically, perhaps, given the feverish nature of civil rights and abortion rights protests surrounding Ashcroft's nomination, there's very little on the foreseeable horizon at Justice involving any of those hot-button issues. Instead, the department faces a docket heavy with antitrust issues, including the ongoing Microsoft case and various pending airline mergers. In the coming months, Ashcroft will also get to weigh in on a few pieces of tobacco legislation.

But civil rights activists in particular will be keeping their eyes on Justice; legislation pertaining to voter redistricting (an often controversial and divisive issue) is likely to surface soon. And given many black voters' dissatisfaction and claims of disenfranchisement (stemming primarily from last November's presidential election), debate surrounding redistricting could prove explosive. The new AG will be watched like a hawk as he maneuvers through this one, but if he handles it well, Ashcroft has a chance to calm fears within the black community that he is insensitive to their concerns.

Ashcroft was criticized harshly during his confirmation hearings for failing to enforce civil rights laws while governor and attorney general of Missouri. He was also reproved for actively opposing Ronnie White, a black judge appointed to a federal court by former president Clinton. Friday, perhaps in an attempt to broadcast his inclusive intentions, Ashcroft's aides said his primary candidate for deputy attorney general is Larry D. Thompson, a black lawyer who was a U.S. district attorney in Georgia during the Reagan administration. Of course, while Thompson's nomination might conceivably smooth a few feathers, it would probably ruffle at least as many — Thompson was one of Clarence Thomas's primary backers during the Supreme Court Justice's acrimonious confirmation battle.