What was president-elect George W. Bush thinking when he selected John Ashcroft as his nominee for Attorney General? That since he was designating three superbly qualified African Americans for high-level positions--Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Education Rod Paige--blacks would somehow overlook Ashcroft's horrendous record on race? Or that it was compassionately conservative for Bush to hire a man who had just lost re-election as Missouri's junior U.S. Senator to a dead man? (Governor Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash during the campaign, won the seat, and his widow is serving in his place.) It certainly couldn't have been that appointing Ashcroft would enhance Bush's image as a uniter, not a divider. Ashcroft's positions on civil rights issues are about as sensitive as a hammer blow to the head.
It's puzzling, because the nomination of an extremist like Ashcroft is so needlessly out of synch with the rest of Bush's utterly respectable Cabinet choices. He could have satisfied the right by selecting Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, who is as tough on crime as Ashcroft, yet far less controversial. But as we are about to find out, Ashcroft won't be confirmed without a fight. The angriest coalition of liberal, civil rights and feminist organizations Washington has seen since the 1987 battle over Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork is lining up to oppose him. The opposition's leaders concede that as a former member of the club, Ashcroft would normally sail through the Senate. But since Ashcroft has been on the wrong side of every social issue from affirmative action to hate-crimes legislation and women's rights, there may be a chance to peel off enough moderate Republicans to make him the first Cabinet appointee to be bounced since 1989, when John Tower lost his chance to be Secretary of Defense for President Bush the Elder.
Pushing Ashcroft through will cost the younger Bush considerable political capital, and might be only the start of his headaches. As a leading G.O.P. strategist puts it, "The risk will be that about every six months, [Ashcroft] will do something that he thinks is clever or politically interesting, and they will open their papers at the White House and say, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Certainly there is plenty in Ashcroft's record to unsettle fair-minded conservatives--and to raise questions about the sincerity of Bush's attempts to reach out to blacks. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in an editorial in December, Ashcroft "has built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African Americans for public office."