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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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In Tony Lewis' New York Times column mentioned below, Lewis prods Senator Joe Biden (a member of the Judiciary Committee) to reconsider his apparent intention to vote in favor of Ashcroft's nomination for AG.

This brings up a delicate, but important, point. And one that's worth considering.

African-Americans are an extremely important Democratic constituency. Despite all the hot-air you've been hearing about Republicans reaching out to the African-American community, the percentage at which African-Americans vote for Democrats has actually been increasing in recent years. And even more important, black voter turnout has risen dramatically in the last two election cycles - particularly in a series of Southern states like Georgia and Florida.

And as important as African-Americans are for Democrats in general elections, they're even more important in primary elections - where they make up twice as large a percentage of the electorate.

In short, support from African-Americans is extremely important to any Democrat who wants to run for president.

Which brings us back to Joe Biden.

You may not know this (I didn't until recently) but Joe Biden is actually interested, very interested, in running for president again.

Really interested.

(Historical Note: Biden ran for president in 1988 but had to leave the race amid allegations that he had plagiarized a speech first given by then-British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock … and for what it's worth, Talking Points actually thinks pretty highly of Joe Biden, and thinks the whole plagiarism charge was a bit overdone.)

Anyway, back to my story.

Let's assume that Ashcroft is confirmed. If he does I suspect he'll become a lightening rod for criticism from African-Americans and supporters of abortion-rights, somewhat along the lines of Antonin Scalia, only about twenty times more. (Ashcroft's militantly pro-life stance hasn't yet gotten as much attention as it should.)

So … fast forward three years and we're in the Democratic primary and Joe Lieberman and John Kerry and Joe Biden and John Edwards are duking it out. Needless to say, the one's who voted against Ashcroft will beat up on the ones who voted for him. And if they don't, activists and constituency groups will do the job for them.

I'm not saying that this is still going to be a burning national issue four years from now. But primary races are funny things. How else are you going to distinguish these characters from each other?

True, if Ashcroft gets confirmed and we never hear another peep from him again, none of this will matter. But I don't really think that's going to happen.

So when you start watching where senators line up on the Ashcroft vote, don't forget about 2003 and 2004. Trust me, they won't be forgetting either.

Today Tony Lewis has a column (pointed out to me by one loyal Talking Points reader) on the Times OpEd page which focuses in on a topic that I've left either implicit or unmentioned in my previous discussions of the Ashcroft nomination, both here and in other publications. The point has to do with the torpedoing of the judicial nomination of Ronnie White. As we've discussed earlier, it seems very hard to see how race was not a major factor in Ashcroft's decision to go against White's nomination.

But was it the only one? Or was it really that simple? Likely not.

Lewis makes the argument - already rehearsed in a number of articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch - that White was the victim of John Ashcroft's reelection campaign against Mel Carnahan.

At the request of the Pope John Paul II, then-governor Carnahan had commuted the sentence of a death-row convict. Ashcroft wanted to make a campaign issue of this commutation, arguing that Carnahan was soft on the death penalty (and, one must assume, also soft on the Pope).

To make the point more forcefully, Ashcroft decided to fight President Clinton's appointment of Ronnie White - whom Carnahan had earlier appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court - because he was allegedly also, like Carnahan, soft on the death penalty. (Still with me?)

By the way, Lewis also concisely details Ashcroft's scurrilous and baseless attacks on White's character and record as a judge.

So does this mean that Ashcroft isn't guilty of attacking White because of his race but only guilty of shamelessly politicizing the judiciary?

No. Honestly, I think it shows he was guilty of both. Ronnie White's race just added to the political effect Ashcroft was trying to achieve. So it may be less that Ashcroft had a gut-level problem with White's race and more that he was trying to use it for political effect.

But think about it this way: Is it worse to have racial animus in your heart? Or just exploit racist fears and animosities to further your political career? Sort of a tough call, isn't it?

I just received an email from the Bush/Cheney press flaks with the list of official "surrogates" (what a concept) for Don Rumsfeld.

In alphabetical order they are:

Dr. Ken Adelman
Senator Bill Bradley
Frank Carlucci
Dr. Henry Kissinger
John Robson
Dr. George Shultz

Wait a second. BILL BRADLEY. I thought he was a Democrat. A Democrat who wanted to freeze or cut defense spending.

Al Gore spent much of the primaries arguing that Bradley wasn't a loyal party man. Geez, I guess he was right.

The only answer I can think of is that both Bradley and Rumsfeld went to Princeton, which would mean that Bill Bradley is more loyal to Princeton University than the Democratic party. (Not a big surprise) Don't get me wrong. I don't have any beef with Princeton (honestly, I went there too, and here's the embarrassing evidence). But couldn't Bradley hold off on making it clear just one more time that he's just not much of a team player, and a bit of turncoat.

P.S. And in case you're wondering. No, Talking Points is not a big fan of Bill Bradley.

Okay, a few thoughts on the Bush cabinet. The more I look at this crew I give Bush pretty high marks. Not on substance but on strategy. Let's assume what I hope is not the case: that every one of Bush cabinet appointments gets approved. Let's also assume that Bush nominates James Talent (mentioned earlier in TPM) as his Labor Secretary, which is what I'm hearing.

You have what looks like a pretty moderate cabinet, which in many respects it is. But conservatives get pretty much all the choice slots they wanted. Ashcroft, needless to say, is beloved by hardcore right-wingers. He's virulently pro-life, no friend of civil rights enforcement, has no concept of the separation of church and state, the list goes on and on.

(An old Newsweek article by Howard Fineman, which I have in front of me, says Ashcroft literally had his head anointed with oil as prescribed in the Old Testament just prior to be being sworn in as senator - I presume religious conservatives will derive some pleasure from this too.)

But it's more than just Ashcroft.

Don Rumsfeld is a perfectly reasonable choice for Defense Secretary. It's pretty hard to say he's not up to the job since he's already done it once before. And Rumsfeld is known as basically a get-along-go-along moderate in Republican ranks. But … and this is a big 'but' ... he's also joe-missile-defense.

He was the head of the commission which a couple years back said that the US was much more vulnerable than commonly thought to attacks from rogue states and thus was in great need of rapid moves toward deploying a missile shield. That report had a decisive effect on the missile defense debate and played a big role in the Clinton administration's support of a limited missile defense option.

So Rumsfeld looks like a moderate, and in many respects he is. But he's a big missile defense man. And conservatives LOVE missile defense. So they love him.

Clever, very clever.

(Who's doing Bush's thinking for him? Can't be him, can it?)

Then take Jim Talent, the possible Labor Secretary. Talent looks like an inoffensive enough fellow. But he's about as anti-labor as they come. Hopefully Democrats will mount a strong fight against him (certainly big labor will insist on it). But unfortunately he probably gets confirmed.

So the upshot of it all is that Bush gets the image of a pretty moderate cabinet (which, as I said, is partly accurate) and yet he gave conservatives a lot - a whole lot - of the plums they wanted.

Sure, they didn't get a complete wing-nut at HHS. But, hey, you can't have everything, can you? And besides Tommy Thompson ain't no Donna Shalala.

P.S. Several editors have been asking me to come up with the unifying principle that pulls together all of Bush's nominees. I think I've got one: people who were just rejected by the voters of Missouri! John Ashcroft lost for Senate last month; Jim Talent lost for governor. It's almost like a jobs program for Republican losers from the Show-Me-State. And in case you think I'm beating up on Missouri -- Back Off! Talking Points was born there.

Damn! Is this a great article, or what? You've got to read this installment of Slate's Chatterbox by Tim Noah. It's about the supposed Democratic elder statesman Bob Strauss, an elder statesman and a wise man who's not really an elder statesman or a wise man, but more like a fixer, a sly self-promoter, and a hack.

(Come to think of it, maybe we should come up with a word for this Washington breed. We could call them hack-men or wise-hacks or elder-fixers. Personally, I think it's a close call between hackmen and wisehacks, and I probably go for the former.)

But anyway, back to my story. Do read Noah's article. It'll tell you more about Washington and the Democratic party and the new administration and influence-peddling than you'll get from a whole month of the New York Times and the Washington Post combined.

P.S. Tim, no thank you note required. Just spread the word about Talking Points. That'll do just fine.

P.P.S. Hackmen, Wisehacks, Elderfixers? Which one sounds best? Anyone else wanna take a stab at this? Should it be a contest?

Don Rumsfeld may be a decent choice for Defense Secretary.

But between you and me, his George W. Bush imitation leaves a lot to be desired.

Is Robert Torricelli running for the role of Senate-Democrat-Most-Likely- to-Stab-His-Own-Party-in- the-Back-for-No-Good-Reason? The position is open after all, what with Bob Kerrey and Pat Moynihan retiring, and Joe Lieberman adopting a more partisan, team-player tone.

Just think. Bob Torricelli … First Senate Dem to call on Al Gore not to file any lawsuits in Florida. First Senate Dem to call on Al Gore to drop out of the race. First Senate Dem to publicly say Al Gore blew it and shouldn't run again. First Senate Dem to give John Ashcroft a thumbs up for AG.

Do I need to go on?

P.S. Next post, what did then-congressman Bob Torricelli tell Talking Points in 1990 when Talking Points interviewed him for his low-budget college radio station public affairs show?

Alright, now we're talkin'!

It took a few days for the mainstream media to pick up my story about John Ashcroft's interview with the Southern Partisan magazine (first published here five days ago, thank you.). But finally we're off and running.

This article published overnight by the Associated Press covers the story in some detail. And, yes, in case you're wondering they came out with it after my piece appeared in Slate, and gave no credit.

But enough of my pathetic whining! It's actually a pretty solid piece. Well worth reading.

Now the fun part starts. We get to listen to the Ashcroftians spin the story and explain why the whole thing's really not a big deal.

Attempt Number One

Bush spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss (whom Talking Points remembers as being quite helpful back when she was spokeswoman for Steve Forbes) said Ashcroft's comments reflected that he "believes in an exact reading on history."

He believes in an exact reading on history … And that means what exactly?

Attempt Number Two

The Bushies and the Ashcroftians told the AP:

As Missouri governor from 1985 to 1993, Ashcroft signed into law a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader; established musician Scott Joplin's house as Missouri's only historic site honoring a black person; created an award honoring black educator George Washington Carver; named a black woman to a state judgeship; and led a fight to save Lincoln University, which was founded by black soldiers.
You know, I also hear he once went to dinner with a black guy from Kansas City.

Okay, sorry, that was uncalled for. But really. So Ashcroft was not wacky enough to be one of the one or two governors who tried to veto an MLK holiday bill. And he appointed one black woman to be a judge. I mean, geez, no one's saying Ashcroft is a Klansman after all. I would hope he'd named one African-American to the bench during eight years as governor of a state with a large African-American population.

But, wait, there's more! When Ashcroft thought of running to be the head of the RNC in 1993 he said the party should be "tolerant" and avoid being "mistakenly portrayed as petty, divisive and mean-spirited."

That's bold -- way bold.

More on point is the fact, reported in the AP story, that George Bush, Sr. appointed Ashcroft to his commission on race and minorities in America. And Ashcroft was one of only two of the forty commission members who refused to sign the final report. Ashcroft said the report's "generalizations about setbacks in progress are overly broad and counterproductive."

Hmmm.

Talking Points hasn't seen the report. But he imagines that since it was sponsored by President Bush it probably wasn't a particularly afro-centric document, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, the point isn't that Ashcroft's a racist. But then that's not the standard, is it? Given all the evidence, let's just say that civil rights enforcement just doesn't really seem like John Ashcroft's cup of tea.

And since the AG is the head civil rights enforcer. Maybe he just ain't the right guy for the job.

Today Talking Points finally got his hands on an actual copy of John Ashcroft's interview with the Southern Partisan magazine.

If anything the quote in question is even more damning than the clipped version noted previously. (If nothing else, it's funnier: the intro praises Ashcroft for being "a jealous defender of national sovereignty against the New World Order.")

Speaking on the evils of historical revisionism, Ashcroft said:

"Your magazine helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
So, in other words, if you really want the straight scoop on the nation's past read the revisionist, crypto-racist claptrap printed in the Southern Partisan.

Man! This guy's got civil rights written all over him, doesn't he?

If you want Talking Points two-bits on this latest development, check out this article he wrote today in Slate.

Ya know, for the first time I'm actually starting to think Ashcroft may not make it.

P.S. I can't name him because I didn't ask his permission, but Talking Points would like to send out an extra special Talking Points 'thank you' to the reader who faxed him a copy of the Ashcroft interview.

By all means read this excellent column by USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. After rehearsing the valid and increasingly well-known reasons for rejecting John Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General on the merits, Chemerinsky proposes a broader, strategic rationale ... considering how many judicial nominations are likely to be coming down the pike, Senate Democrats should take this opportunity to make the ground rules clear: no hardcore right-wingers on the bench or as AG, period. No 'ifs', 'ands', or 'buts' about it.

Chemerinsky says the Dems should even be willing to filibuster the nomination if need be (and the need probably will be.)

That makes good sense both substantively and politically.

This December 8th New York Post column (by none other than Talking Points himself!) makes the point more broadly. George W. needs to understand that there's a price to be paid for jimmying the lock and sneaking into the Oval Office by the back door. If Bush wants smooth sailing during the cabinet confirmation process, the Dems need to tell him: only moderates and mainstream conservatives get appointments to the important posts, period. This isn't payback; just a recognition of the reality of this election.

And finally, why hasn't more been said about Ashcroft's interview with the Southern Partisan magazine? I'd like to take heaps of credit for being the first to mention this story late on the evening of December 22nd. But, honestly, a few Nexis searches are all that's required to get all the details. But a quick search on the self-same Nexis reveals that only one article (that by Tom Edsall in the Washington Post) has even mentioned the Southern Partisan interview since Ashcroft's nomination (and even then only in passing).

Isn't this sort of a big deal? Is it really too much to ask that nominees for Attorney General not give interviews to crypto- (or not-so-crypto) racist publications like the Southern Partisan?

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