All the barbed words and press conferences surrounding John Ashcroft's nomination to be US attorney general may seem like little more than the posturing that lately accompanies more and more cabinet confirmations. But in this case, the politicking is not without a point.
The very nature of the attorney general's job as enforcer of federal law grants the post more independence than other cabinet slots. As the nation's top law-enforcement official, the attorney general decides which areas of law get top priority - on everything from civil rights to antitrust to abortion - and which are left on auto pilot.
The result, Democrats worry and Republicans hope, is that the next attorney general will likely undo many of the Clinton administration's actions. Hence the epic struggle that begins today at the mahogany witness table in the Senate's gilded Judiciary Committee room.
"There is a tremendous amount of power in the post," says Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "There is a tremendous amount of pressure for the White House to keep its hands off, to prevent even the appearance of obstruction of justice."
As attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft could play a critical role in two major areas - advising the president on judicial appointments, and determining how strongly to enforce the federal laws on the books.
Ashcroft's advice on filling the 80 currently vacant seats in the federal judiciary system - not to mention any openings on the Supreme Court - may or may not be significant, says Professor Goldman. Under former Presidents Reagan and Bush, the attorney general's advice held great sway, while President Clinton, a lawyer himself, had a more direct hand in his judicial picks.
But in the area of enforcing the law, Ashcroft's political views could play a considerable role.
The Reagan administration, for instance, abandoned a 13-year-old lawsuit against IBM when it first arrived in Washington, leaving many to wonder the fate of the government's current antitrust case against Microsoft.
Tom Jipping, director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy, hopes that Ashcroft will enforce pornography laws more vigorously, and step back on affirmative-action cases - where he feels the government is "pushing the edge of the envelope" in advocating racial quotas.
This kind of talk has raised the ire of liberal advocacy groups, some 200 of which have joined forces to oppose Ashcroft. They point to statements the former senator has made and positions he has taken as proof that he will not be able to enforce the laws he is charged to protect.
"He's on record as opposing the assault-weapons ban," says Mary Leigh Blek, spokeswoman for the Million Mom March. "We have some important cases coming up, like US v. Emerson [concerning an individual's right to own a gun]. Will Attorney General Ashcroft keep the litigation going, or will he let it die?"
Should Ashcroft eventually be confirmed, both sides envision his tenure at the front of the partisan wars. Mr. Jipping believes the confirmation fight over Ashcroft is just laying the groundwork for future disputes over Supreme Court nominations. Considering the stakes, this week's confirmation hearing may wind up as a dress rehearsal for fights in coming elections.
"It's hard to imagine how the workings of the Justice Department under Ashcroft wouldn't be a political issue in 2002 and 2004," says Goldman.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society