Hey look The Ashcrometer

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Hey, look! The Ashcrometer just took a tumble from 82% chance of confirmation to 69%. Okay, okay, I admit, it’s still pretty damn likely he gets confirmed. But the last few days have not been particularly good ones for Ashcroft.

The big news of course is that Democrats have forced a delay of at least one week in a vote on Ashcroft. The New York Times came out strongly against the nomination. And there are some rumors swirling around Capitol Hill about possible surprises. But I don’t expect anything on that front.

But the real issue is a simple hardening of resolve on the part of the Democratic caucus. Evan Bayh’s stated opposition to the nomination probably brings with it most of the other Democrats who have even the slightest thoughts of running for president in four years. (Joe Biden was on Hardball this evening and left little doubt he was voting against.) The number of announced ‘no’ votes is currently six. But the actual number of assured ‘no’ votes is probably closer to 25. (One senate staffer told me yesterday that after the Democrats’ caucus meeting yesterday his senator thought the Dems would do well to get 25 ‘no’ votes against Ashcroft. But that doesn’t sound right to me. Also, expect some high profile announcements next Tuesday.)

On the other hand several key Senators who seem inclined to vote against Ashcroft’s nomination have stated publicly that they won’t support a filibuster. Among others, these include Pat Leahy, Jean Carnahan and Tom Daschle.

So why the delay? Hard to tell. The best answer I can come up with is that you’ve got a number of senators who are truly undecided and find themselves in an extremely difficult position, namely – Tim Johnson, Max Cleland, Mary Landrieu, and a number of others. These are Senators who come from states where they have to downplay their party affiliation. The idea of getting dragged into a filibuster that has Teddy Kennedy’s name all over it is very frightening for these guys (and gal) and for good reason. The last two, Cleland and Landrieu, also have the misfortune of serving with senior Senators who are signaling support for Ashcroft and thus making their situation that much harder.

(Note: Technically, Max Cleland is the senior senator from Georgia. But Cleland isn’t particularly well liked back home among party regulars; he’s in a heap of trouble in his reelection bid; and Miller is both chronologically older and a powerhouse of Georgia politics. So, in effect, Miller is the senior senator.)

Tom Daschle, both as Democratic Leader and as someone who himself comes from a conservative state, is very sensitive to the difficult spot these senators face and he’s clearly trying to give them as much space and freedom as he can to make a decision they can live with.

So here’s the question: If Dems are going to have a hard time getting to forty ‘no’ votes, and if even some of those ‘no’ votes won’t support a filibuster, how exactly do you figure Ashcroft actually gets rejected?

Answer: If you assume all these contingencies then there’s no way Ashcroft gets rejected. But my strong sense at this point is that these contingencies are far from locked in. A number of non-scandal, but possibly important, stories are bubbling to the surface (like this one) which touch upon Ashcroft’s candor during the committee hearings. The mood seems to be gravitating strongly against Ashcroft in the Democratic caucus. And the delay itself shows that the Dems feel time is on their side.

It may just be.

By waiting, the Senate Democrats likely insure something close to an even partisan split on the Ashcroft vote which, politically, they feel works to their advantage. And with things so evenly they balanced, they figure, one more shoe drops and his nomination is sunk. So either way, they feel it’s a win on partisan terms.

And one more thing. Daschle and the rest of the Democratic leadership clearly feels it’s extremely important that the Democratic base not feel they caved, even if they’re not able to block the nomination. So taking their time helps in that regard too.

So that’s your utterly disorganized and formless Talking Points run-down of where we are on the Ashcroft nomination. And why the Ashcrometer stands at 69% likelihood of confirmation.

P.S. For those of you who feel disappointed that the Dems aren’t fighting hard enough on this one, consider this: My sense is that Tom Daschle’s hand is controlling the big picture here. And for what it’s worth I’ve got immense confidence that Daschle has a very good sense of what is in the best medium and long term interests of the Democratic party and the principles and issues Democrats believe in. So just keep that in mind. Also, see this excellent recent article on Daschle for more info.

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