Ashcroft Tests the Waters

By George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Ashcroft Tests the Waters


George Will Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


John Ashcroft, Missouri's freshman Republican senator, is uncoy about doing what must be done to be ready to run for president. You can, he says, quit such a campaign anytime but you cannot start anytime.

So he is out spending quality time with Republican primary voters and people who tell him he can, with their help, have $20 million by the first quarter of 2000.

A former two-term governor, he laughingly says, "Anyone who tells you that being senator is as much fun as being governor will lie to you about other things, too." A person who has wielded executive power is apt to want to do so again. If the Christian Coalition and like-minded cultural conservatives were designing their pinup candidate, the result would look remarkably like the 55-year-old Ashcroft, the son and grandson of ministers, who begins his day with devotions in his office. For economic conservatives, he has a clear tax proposal with a calculable cash value: an income tax deduction for payroll taxes, which he says are "the only taxation exclusively on work." Some Missouri conservatives say Ashcroft was a depressingly orthodox governor, under whom things that should not have risen - spending, the number of government tentacles, the morale of the public education lobby - rose. But when he left office, as when he entered it, Missouri ranked 49th among the states in per capita tax burden. And Missourians were content: In 1988, he won his second term with the highest percentage (64) achieved by any governor since the Civil War, and in his 1994 Senate race he carried every county. Ideological clarity is easier in the Senate than at the head of a state's executive branch. He has been able to dramatize his conservatism by, for example, pushing the term-limits constitutional amendment to a vote and by fathering a law that empowers churches and other faith-based institutions to participate in the administration of welfare services. He tartly explains his vote against the budget deal: "We had to find ways to spend money to keep from balancing the budget before the year 2002, and sure enough the Congress rose to the challenge." An advocate of tax simplification - his wife teaches tax law at Howard University, yet he says they cannot do their own taxes - he disdains the budget deal because it "tweaked the system in 800 ways." As a potential presidential candidate he has two problems, each of which might seem at first, to be an asset. …

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