by Alexander Cockburn
liberal public interest outfits rushed to the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify on the theme that John Ashcroft, Bush's nominee to run the Justice Department, is athwart the national consensus, "too extreme" to be confirmed as U.S. attorney general, as Ralph Neas of People for The American Way put it.
This alleged athwartness is attributed to Ashcroft's Christian fundamentalism, support for the Second Amendment and imputed racism. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority has taken the same tack: "Women's organizations are justifiably outraged over Bush's appointment of right wing, anti-women's rights extremists. Both Ashcroft and [Wisconsin governor Tommy] Thompson [Bush's nominee to run Health and Human Services (HHS)] want to criminalize abortion and make it a felony."
Among other malfeasances, Ashcroft is charged with the liberals as being the driving force behind "charitable choice," the contracting-out of federal functions to private religious organizations not covered under federal anti-discrimination law.
One witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee was Professor Dunn, who teaches at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C. In the hearings, he harshly denounced Ashcroft as "the principle architect of charitable choice legislation" and stated correctly that "Having one's tax dollars taken by government coercion and turned over to pervasively sectarian outfits to do good threatens everyone's civil and religious liberties."
No doubt about it. Ashcroft is hot for charitable choice and for a big role for "faith-based organizations." So is George Bush, who made them a very big feature in his sparse list of campaign specifics.
But who accepted charitable choice as part of the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, the welfare reform law that Al Gore pressed Bill Clinton to sign, and which Gore ringingly praised him for signing all last year?
In his recent campaign, Gore spoke about a larger role for faith-based organizations almost as often as Bush, despite the obvious fact that in practical terms, this means funneling federal dollars to religious groups in the business of discriminating against religious or sexual preferences they don't care for. There are many very fine faith-based organizations, but this doesn't mean we have to approve of God-thumpers running drug-rehab programs with federal money, hectoring addicts or former addicts that the only way forward for them is to acknowledge the existence of a Higher Power and to take Christ into their lives.
So where's the "extremism" of Ashcroft? Given the Christian pietism that is compulsory in Washington, he looks entirely mainstream to me, except he appears to take his religion seriously. Scaremongering about Roe v Wade, Gore's central strategy last fall, is an increasingly threadbare tactic, particularly since First Lady Laura Bush has made it her initial investment of political capital to insist that it shouldn't be touched by her husband or his administration. (As for Bush's reversal of government policy on financing population control overseas, I, for one, do not lament any discomfiture of the Malthusians. Let them get private money from the Rockefeller crowd, always zealous to fund such enterprises.)
Even before Laura Bush made her ringing pronouncement, Ashcroft had told the Senate Judiciary Committee he would never mess with Roe v Wade. The Republicans aren't crazy, as Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania made clear in those same hearings when he said, "We do have very firm commitments on the record from Senator Ashcroft that he's not going to move to overturn Roe v Wade by constitutional amendment. And the fact is, he couldn't if he tried. We've had a Republican Congress for six years and now going into eight years, and nobody has even made an effort, at least not a serious effort. And there's a firm commitment that he's not going to use a litmus test. And with the 50/50 split I think that's an enforceable commitment both as to the president-elect and as to Senator Ashcroft, if he is in fact confirmed."
(Senator Specter was in witty form in these Ashcroft hearings. Addressing one testifier against Ashcroft, he benignly remarked, "Ms. Michelman, you're a pragmatist. I know that because I see you working out in the gym with some regularity.")
All the old Democratic warhorses rallied round to do some dutiful barking at Ashcroft. But to watch Ted Kennnedy or Joe Biden do their numbers was like hearing one of those car alarms that go off at 3AM. They make a lot of noise, but no one pays the slightest attention, and in the end they stop, having achieved no greater purpose than the advertisement that, at least in some notional, symbolic sense, they are on guard.
January 29, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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