Magazine article The American Prospect

How Ashcroft Happened

Magazine article The American Prospect

How Ashcroft Happened

Article excerpt

If all had gone according to George W. Bush's original plan, Marc Racicot would today be our attorney general. Racicot, who was, until recently, governor of Montana, would have been a solid choice. Though he's enough of a GOP loyalist to satisfy the party faithful (he earned his partisan spurs working on Bush's behalf during the Florida recount), he is moderate enough to have pleased the suburban voters who turned out for Bush based on his claim to be a "uniter, not a divider." At one point recently, Racicot had the highest approval rating--87 percent--of any governor in the country. Liberal groups still might have opposed Racicot based on his official stance against abortion, for example, but he would not have been a provocation to them.

John Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a brazen provocation: He's a hard-core conservative on race, civil rights, abortion, and a host of other issues. As is by now quite well known, he has a history of blocking African-American judicial appointments and making controversial comments about the Confederacy. Racicot may not be as liberal as a northern Republican like Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, but he and Ashcroft hail from opposite wings of the Republican Party.

So why did Ashcroft supplant Racicot? Shouldn't Bush, as a new president with a shaky claim to legitimacy and a desire to be perceived as moderate, have gone for the less controversial choice? Lost in all the brouhaha over Ashcroft's confirmation hearings is the story of how Ashcroft came to be nominated in the first place. In that story lies a glimpse of who is influencing the Bush administration and how they go about it.

Three days before Bush announced his nominee for attorney general, a small group of intellectual Catholic and Protestant conservatives--unhappy with what they perceived to be Racicot's moderate views on abortion, homosexuality, and school choice--recruited Princeton University professor Robert P. George to draft a paper detailing the case against Racicot.

George was ideally suited to the task. A rising conservative star who made a name for himself defending Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing, George is a prominent natural-law theorist who holds Woodrow Wilson's old chair at Princeton. He is also a staunch Roman Catholic and ardent pro-life activist; he once penned an amicus brief for Mother Teresa asking the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, he has written extensively on the need for conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals to employ "interfaith cooperation in pursuit of operational objectives in the culture war." (By "operational objectives," George means stopping gay rights and banning abortion.)

George's report on Racicot quickly circulated among conservatives and made its way to Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser. Rove tried unsuccessfully to convince the group of Racicot's conservative bona fides, both in conference calls and in face-to-face talks. Two days after George's report began to circulate, Racicot withdrew from consideration. "We're still not clear what exactly happened," a spokeswoman for Racicot confided.

Two related phenomena combined to derail Racicot--and George and his fellow conservative religious intellectuals would rather those phenomena not come to light. The first was religious conservatives' tacit agreement to stay out of the spotlight during Bush's presidential campaign in order not to frighten off moderate voters, as many believe they had during the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. The second is the decline over the past decade in the animosity between evangelicals and Catholics, and the subsequent movement, of which George is a prominent member, to form what he calls a "pan-orthodox alliance" between Catholic social conservatives and evangelical Protestants to exert greater influence over public affairs.

This movement has been most visible in the religious academic journal First Things, where George is on the editorial advisory board. …

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