Opponents of John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general of the United States used his confirmation process to send this message to President Bush: Just wait until next time.
In the end, Democrats opted not to use all means at their disposal to block Mr. Ashcroft from taking office. While they did not have enough votes to defeat him outright, they could have tied up Senate business - and the new president's agenda - for weeks in a filibuster. They did not.
Instead, the Ashcroft hearings demonstrated the depth and breadth of the left's unity on hot-button issues such as abortion and affirmative action. The implicit Democratic promise is that a US Supreme Court nominee with conservative views similar to those of the new attorney general could face a bitter and protracted fight.
The opposition is "a very clear indication about the depth of feeling in this country in protecting progress on basic civil rights," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, an architect of the Democrats' strategy on the nomination.
Battle lines over the Justice nomination were drawn early. Conservative Ashcroft supporters claimed credit for diverting Bush from a more moderate prospect, GOP Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana.
Even before the hearings began, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi announced that all 50 Republican senators would vote to confirm their former colleague. Indeed, confidence in "the John Ashcroft I know" emerged as a leitmotif during hours of hearings and debate over this nomination.
At the same time, anti-Ashcroft activists swiftly assembled the broadest coalition ever to oppose a Cabinet nomination. It included liberal groups on issues such as women's rights, civil rights, separation of church and state, the environment, and gun control.
"When I first heard that Bush had nominated John Ashcroft, it became clear to me that this was the president's payment to the extreme anti-choice wing of his party - payment for being very quiet during the campaign," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood. "But even so, I was surprised by the depth of passion among members of the public over this issue. Women do care, and will vote over this issue."
Both sides took full advantage of new high-tech firepower in making their case to wavering lawmakers. Pro- and anti-Ashcroft websites sprung up within hours of the nomination, and helped generate hundreds of thousands of messages to lawmakers. Both groups targeted senators at odds with public opinion in their states.
"What we saw with the Ashcroft fight was a 24/7 lobbying cycle," says James Thurber, a congressional analyst at American University here. "Everyone is wired. With a website, it's easy to get e-mails flowing to the Hill, to get phone calls going, and that's what happened."
Ashcroft supporters targeted senators from Montana, Georgia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and West Virginia in this battle. They say new technologies allowed them to reach millions of constituents quickly.
"In the past, you couldn't turn on a dime because you were dependent on direct mail," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who launched Americans for the Bush Cabinet early in the Ashcroft fight. "We had vowed ... to have 1 million contacts reach the Hill before this thing came to an end. We have verified over 900,000."
For opposition groups, key states were Maine, Louisiana, Connecticut, South Dakota, North Dakota, and especially Wisconsin, where two senators appeared to be sitting on the fence.
Many groaned when Wisconsin's Sen. Russell Feingold (D) said Tuesday he'd vote in favor of Ashcroft. "It is a very dangerous thing for progressive Democrats, like myself, to reject a guy like this, because we will want to have people of strong progressive views in future administrations, and Republicans have voted for such people in the past," says Senator Feingold, who cast the lone Democratic vote on the Judiciary Committee in Ashcroft's favor. "But I don't believe we have to give the president all his judicial appointments - that's a very different situation."
For many targeted Democrats, the message of anti-Ashcroft interest groups was clear: A "yes" vote for the nominee would imperil that group's future support of the lawmaker.
"It's a sad day when people who were your friends and allies look at you as if you betrayed them," says Feingold. But "I didn't come out here to be a soldier in a culture war. I believe in bipartisanship."
Early on, Senator Kennedy signaled that the nomination could wind up in a filibuster. A leader of the 1987 fight that defeated the US Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, he knows how to play a tough end game. This time, though, he backed off.
After consulting with fellow Democrats last weekend, the senator concluded that what counted most was maximizing the "no" votes - a way of signaling the new president to choose carefully his future judicial appointments.
The reason for this strategy seem to be both practical and political. The Democrats knew they didn't have the votes to filibuster, but they also didn't want to be the first to spoil the new congenial spirit that President Bush has brought to Washington.
The Carnahan connection
One who was instrumental in settling the strategy was freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) of Missouri. At a caucus Tuesday, she urged fellow senators not to filibuster. Ashcroft's decision not to contest the loss of his Senate seat, won by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, opened the way for Mrs. Carnahan to take her husband's place in the Senate.
"She thought it was only right that each senator have the opportunity to vote his or her conscience, and a filibuster would deny the opportunity to do that," said a Carnahan aide.
Ashcroft supporters say the fury over this nomination will ultimately help their cause. "The left has made Ashcroft a cause celebre, and they failed," says conservative activist Scott Reed. "If anything, this exercise has united Republicans around Bush and his agenda and the people he chose to lead his Cabinet."
But analysts say conservatives may also have lost a chit or two in the process.
"The Ashcroft nomination was a symbolic way for Bush to appeal to his far right," says Mr. Thurber. "The more confrontation over this one, the more degrees of freedom he has [from conservative influence] to work on other issues."
A case in point: Conservatives haven't made a peep about Bush's plan to emphasize national testing in education - an idea that was anathema to conservatives during the Clinton years.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society