On the eve of the inauguration of a man who promised to be a uniter, the confirmation hearings for his attorney general nominee, John Ashcroft, are playing out on the most divisive fault line in US politics: race.
President-elect Bush is the first GOP candidate in 40 years not to use race as a wedge issue in his campaign. His nominee for secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, sailed through his nomination hearings, en route to the highest cabinet post ever held by an African-American.
Yet, all that is being eclipsed by the high drama of the Ashcroft hearings. Former Senator Ashcroft looks likely to survive the nomination process, but the rancor over his controversial views could make him the lightning rod for the Bush administration in the next four years.
Yesterday's testimony from Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White gave a face to the theme of race in this nomination fight. In 1999, Ashcroft led the fight to block Judge White's nomination to the federal bench on the floor of the Senate on the ground that he was "pro-criminal" and had "a tremendous bent toward criminal activity." White told senators that his record belied those claims, and that he came to "reclaim my reputation as a judge and a lawyer."
Anticipating the impact of this testimony, GOP senators objected to White's appearing alone as the first witness in these hearings. But Republicans are in the minority in a 50-50 Senate until tomorrow, when a new vice president will be able to break ties in their favor.
Early on, Ashcroft tried to defuse the race issue. He promised to guarantee rights for the advancement of all Americans. He praised Robert Kennedy, "who found within himself the courage to surmount America's historical racial intolerance." He condemned racial profiling and observed that there are millions of Americans "who wonder if justice means hostility aimed at just us."
He even assured former colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would have fought on the Union side in the Civil War - and would have "winced" at allowing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to keep his sword and horse Traveller at the surrender in 1865.
It's an odd counterpoint to a presidential campaign that was anchored resolutely in the dead center of American politics. It could signal a sharper tone in the new Congress - and more ideological campaigns in 2002 and 2004.
"What we're seeing is a battle of the bases - Ashcroft was selected to appease the conservative wing of the Republican Party; the opposition aims to appease the liberal base of the Democratic Party," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. "Most confirmation battles are ephemeral. But the thread that could last in this fight is the theme of race, which is a profound divide in the American electorate at this moment," he adds.
The Ashcroft hearings come on the heels of an election in which 9 in 10 black voters voted Democrat, despite strong efforts by the Bush campaign to win them over. Black votes were a key concern in the Florida recount. During the Electoral College tally, members of the Congressional Black Caucus repeatedly criticized senators for not supporting their objections to the recount. That's a charge Senate Democrats are now eager to correct.
In rapid order, Democrats grilled the nominee on his record in the White confirmation hearings, on landmark desegregation cases in Missouri, on registering black voters in St. Louis, and the nominee's opposition to abortion rights and gun control.
"The fact is that tens of thousands of blacks were not able to participate in the voting. That happens to be relevant, senator, because we have just gone through a national debate and discussion and focus on the question of whether minorities are going to be able to vote... That might not be important to you, senator, but I think it's important to the quality of the person who is going to be at the head of the Justice Department," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, during a fiery exchange with GOP Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Senator Kennedy and other Democrats apologized to Ronnie White for the charges made concerning Ashcroft's nomination. Kennedy called it "the ugliest thing to happen to any judicial nominee in all my years in the US Senate."
Many Democrats expect the nominee to be confirmed, but it will not be without a fight, including the possibility of a filibuster on the floor of the Senate.
Civil rights and other groups opposed to Ashcroft welcomed the fireworks, and said they expect Democrats to push the effort to defeat him to the utmost.
"The federal courts are the nexus of our success with equity and justice, and this man is going to be the arbiter of the president's appointments to the courts," says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, head of the Black Leadership Forum.
Ashcroft backers, noting his past support of many black judges, lament what they say is an unfair characterization of the nominee on racial issues.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society