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Published: Monday, 2/5/2001

Confirmation, with strings

To their credit, Democrats in the U.S. Senate seemed content with simply making a point over the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general and moving on to other issues. They never did have the votes, or even the heart, to defeat one of their own, but they wanted to send a message to the Bush administration that future conservative nominees to the Supreme Court or federal judiciary might be in jeopardy.

The final tally for confirmation, 58-42, was only important in that it demonstrated that Senate Democrats can muster more than the 41 votes required to sustain a filibuster to stop future top-level presidential appointments which they cannot abide.

Democrats could have made a greater fuss but, as one Senate aide explained it, “There is a sense that there can be, and will be, disagreement. But it will not be taken personally and will not affect the White House and the Senate's ability to make progress in other areas.”

The former Missouri senator thus ascends to an office in which he will wield enormous influence in federal enforcement, or non-enforcement, of laws governing such signal issues as abortion and gun control, laws he previously opposed. He promises to run a Justice Department “that is free from politics, that is uncompromisingly fair,” but the proof will not be in words but in his performance.

Mr. Ashcroft has consistently been described by his friends as a person of absolute integrity. But, as the hearings clearly showed, his career has been that of a typical canny politician who advanced himself at the state and national levels with timely, and sometimes vicious, opposition to abortion, or racial desegregation, or a qualified black federal court appointee, all from behind a fa ade of religious piety.

Is that really integrity? Or maybe his supporters simply redefined the word, a synonym for honesty, to mean merely sticking by any set of values, no matter how perverse.

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