John Ashcroft: Attorney General from the Right

Bill Berkowitz

Reverend Pat Robertson and other Christian Right leaders received an early
Christmas present on Friday, December 22, when President-elect George W. Bush
named Senator John Ashcroft as his nominee for attorney general. The person
that many on the Christian Right, including Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich,
thought best suited to be president, is back in business after having lost his
Senate seat this fall to the late-Missouri Governor Mel Car- nahan, whose wife
assumed that seat.

John Ashcroft,
58, the son and grandson of Assembly of God clergymen, is a non-drinking,
non-smoking, piano playing singer of gospel music, who played rugby at Yale
and went on to law school at the University of Chicago. He was a two-term
governor of Missouri and was the state’s attorney general from 1976 until
1985. He is probably best known for introducing the concept of “charitable
choice” into the 1996 welfare “reform” act. He is also vehemently
opposed to gun controls of any type and is fervently anti-abortion.

Michael P.
Farris, longtime leader of the home-school movement and president of Patrick
Henry College in Loudoun County, Virginia told the Washington Post that
he was “ecstatic” about Bush’s pick. “Ashcroft is a hero to
conservatives,” Farris said. “He has a long track record of supporting the
conservative agenda.”

Flash back to
1998. Christian right activists within the Republican Party are still bitter
about the failed candidacy of Bob Dole, upset about what they perceive to be
their “disenfranchisement” by Republican Party leadership. Angry speeches
are delivered, threats to “bolt the Party” are issued, furious letters
exchanged, and secret strategy sessions held. Christian right leaders begin
shopping around for an ideologically friendly presidential candidate for the
year 2000. Many of them settle on Missouri Senator John Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s
campaign got an early boost from Pat Robertson’s family who sent his Spirit
of America PAC a check for $10,000. Several right-wing columnists wrote
favorably about Ashcroft’s possibilities. Jeff Jacoby, in the Washington
Times, called Ashcroft “a born-and-bred son of the Christian right,
the only Republican eyeing the White House who belongs to what is arguably the
most important, most unified element of the Reagan coalition.” Terrence P.
Jeffrey, who managed Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign, noted in the
conservative weekly Human Events that Ashcroft’s early showing
in a South Carolina straw poll “was another sure step forward in the
senator’s strategy to preemptively define himself as the first choice of GOP
conservatives in the 2000 presidential primaries.”

These rave
reviews from hard right GOPers were clearly based on Ashcroft’s record. In
his career he has been anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-gambling, in favor of
killing the National Endowment for the Arts, a supporter of the death penalty,
and he voted for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. He was one of a handful
of Senators who consistently received top ratings from the Christian
Coalition’s congressional scorecard.

In trying to
build support and raise campaign money, Ashcroft staked out the “moral
authority” issue. He repeatedly attacked president Clinton, raising the
question of impeachment just days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. At
one time, he called the president a sexual “predator.” In November 1998,
he sent out a direct mail appeal urging signatures on a “Bill Clinton Must
Resign” petition.

However, the
key to Ashcroft’s program was what he called “unleashing the cultural
remedy.” Concretely, this meant spreading the good news about “charitable
choice” to other government services besides welfare reform. In 1998,
Ashcroft introduced a bill that would allow religious groups to receive
“government funding to serve drug addicts, homeless people, juvenile
delinquents, and troubled families.” The Reverend Barry Lynn, of Americans
United for Separation of Church and State, called Ashcroft’s proposal an
attempt to “run a bulldozer through the wall of separation between church
and state,”

Given that
Ashcroft needed to raise some $20 million to run for the White House, it was
not surprising that he dropped out of the race in early January 1999, citing
the lack of funds, saying that he had decided to focus his attention on
winning a second Senate term. At the time, Carole Shields of People for the
American Way commented that “Senator Ashcroft personifies the Religious
Rights no-compromise brand of politics.” Ashcroft’s “no-compromise brand
of politics” was most evident during the battle over the confirmation of
African American Ronnie White for a federal judgeship, which Ashcroft blocked.
During the press conference announcing Ashcroft’s nomination, when asked
about the Ronnie White matter President-elect Bush replied that he was
convinced that Ashcroft acted properly. Ashcroft also unsuccessfully tried to
block David Satcher, President Clinton’s pick for surgeon general. Given his
record on the White and Satcher confirmation, one can only wonder what to
expect from the next attorney general in the way of civil rights?

After his
defeat in November, a Handgun Control (HC) news release noted that Ashcroft
had “voted against Handgun Control positions 13 out of 13 times, including
votes against child safety locks and closing the gun-show loopholes.”
Although he tried to distance himself from the National Rifle Association, HC
reports that the NRA spent close to $400,000 on behalf of his reelection
campaign, and “gave him an A grade in their 2000 Election report card.”

Another major
area of concern revolves around how Ashcroft will deal with abortion issues.
In an April 1998 “Meet the Press” appearance, Ashcroft said that if he had
one opportunity to pass a single law, “I would fully recognize the
constitutional right to life of every unborn child, and ban every abortion
except for those medically necessary to save the life of the mother.”

Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related
conservative movements.