With Justice nominee, Bush nods to conservatives

After a string of moderate Cabinet picks, Bush chooses an attorney general that pleases the religious right.

With the selection of Sen. John Ashcroft to serve as US attorney general, the president-elect has sent a potent signal to conservative Republicans that their viewpoints will be represented in a Bush administration.

The choice of Senator Ashcroft, who was defeated by a narrow margin for reelection in November, puts a solid conservative in one of the most visible Cabinet posts. With Dick Cheney as vice president and with Virginia Gov. James Gilmore as chairman of the Republican National Committee, conservatives are seeing a solid, right-leaning nucleus of individuals in an administration that, they had worried, was taking on a too-moderate tone.

"Conservatives have a lot to be excited about with this Cabinet right now," says Greg Mueller, who had advised Ashcroft during the senator's brief bid at the presidency earlier this year.

Ashcroft is one of the GOP's most aggressive champions of religious conservative causes. He opposes abortion, supports the death penalty, and is looked upon with suspicion by most civil rights activists.

An official close to George W. Bush said the president-elect had determined that he could afford to reach out to moderates in some Cabinet picks but that the jobs of attorney general and secretary of Health and Human Services - slated to go to Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) - were essential to conservatives.

In brief acceptance remarks, Ashcroft used the word "integrity" four times, and Mr. Bush seemed to draw an implicit contrast between his Justice Department and that of President Clinton.

"John Ashcroft will perform his duties guided by principle, not by politics," Bush said.

Ashcroft's appointment, however, is of concern to civil rights activists, who say he has blocked the confirmation of black judges he considered too liberal. "Any pretense of unifying the nation has ended with this nomination," says Julian Bond, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Less than two weeks ago, Bush called Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana to Austin amid signs that he would be choosing his Cabinet with an eye toward power-sharing with Democrats. With last week's announcements, Democrats have been all but eliminated from consideration for top posts.

Prospects for confirmation

Despite misgivings of civil libertarians and other groups, Ashcroft stands a more-than-decent chance at winning confirmation from the Senate.

In a move that impressed Bush officials and that they believe should help him win Democratic support, Ashcroft said the day after losing his Senate seat to the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan that he would reject any legal challenge to the results. "The people should be respected and heard," he said.

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the Judiciary Committee, says he favors Ashcroft's confirmation. "While I have obvious philosophical differences with John Ashcroft, his ability and integrity simply can't be questioned," Senator Torricelli said.

Senator Breaux also predicted that Ashcroft would win Senate confirmation. Ashcroft "helped himself immensely by the way he handled his defeat," he said. In a strange election, Ashcroft lost to Carnahan, who died in a plane crash just before the election. Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to the seat.

John Ashcroft, who was Missouri attorney general from 1976 until 1985, was elected governor in 1984 and re-elected in 1988. He won a Senate seat in 1994.

'A grand slam'

"Bush wanted to make a statement with this pick that he wanted the antithesis of [Attorney General] Janet Reno," says Keith Appell, a conservative who had advised Steve Forbes during the Republican primaries. "Ashcroft is an absolute grand slam as far as conservatives are concerned."

Previously, some conservatives had grumbled about the naming of Alcoa Chairman Paul O'Neill as Treasury secretary, because he had supported an energy tax and other elements of President Clinton's economic policies. Others had worked to ensure that Bush would not appoint Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a moderate, to the top post at the Justice Department.

But smiles from conservatives are, predictably, matched by frowns among liberals. "It's hard to think of a more divisive choice for attorney general," says Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "It's especially surprising, coming from a president who professes to be a uniter, not a divider."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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