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Et Tu, Feingold?

A lot of people were left scratching their heads after Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, supported the confirmation of his rightwing former colleague John Ashcroft as Attorney General. For one thing, progressive groups had chosen the Ashcroft nomination as a major rallying point. And then there was the fact that even Feingold acknowledged Ashcroft's reprehensible record: his aggressive tactics to block gay and black federal appointees, his hostility to civil rights, and his anti-abortion extremism.

Why would Feingold, the progressive, pro-choice, pro-civil-rights, anti-death-penalty Senator, stand up for Ashcroft's confirmation? And what does Feingold's bipartisan gesture say about the Democratic Party as a whole?

Feingold argues that it was important to the legitimacy of the process not to let the Ashcroft nomination become a matter of ideology or partisan politics. He said it was a matter of constitutional principle and longstanding practice in the Senate to confirm nominees who are qualified and not legally or ethically challenged, regardless of their politics. Although, as he put it, "a reasonable person could conclude he couldn't enforce the law," Feingold concluded Ashcroft would uphold his oath to be fair and impartial.

"I believe we have to hold the line and not use ideology alone in making decisions about cabinet appointments," Feingold says. Otherwise, "I fear if we keep going, more and more areas of our government are going to fall into the Great Divide and be engulfed in a culture war."

Liberals could not be confirmed, either, if Republican Senators applied an ideological litmus test. By offering what he calls "an olive branch" to the Republicans, Feingold says he is setting precedent for a progressive administration of the future.

Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, doesn't buy it. "I think he's confusing an olive branch with a fig leaf. He needs to go back to botany class," Frank growls. "This one-sided extension of an olive branch makes no sense. The nomination of Ashcroft was a declaration of war."

As for the idea that Ashcroft will do his duty and uphold the law, Frank points out that Ashcroft will have broad discretion. "The Attorney General has a lot of small decisions to make," says Frank. "Should gay people get asylum? Should a federal sex-crimes register include people who are arrested for consensual sex acts?"

Feingold knows that many of his Democratic constituents were upset with his vote. Especially in the urban areas of his state, Feingold says, "there were lots of people who were confused and hurt, not understanding why I would vote the way I did until I explained it to them." But he notes that in his "listening sessions" around the rest of Wisconsin, "many people were glad I took an independent stand."

"Independent" is the key word here.

If Feingold chafes Democrats, he, like his friend and fellow campaign finance reformer John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has built a constituency among independent voters who admire his maverick stands. This independent constituency is much on the minds of Washington politicos these days.

"Democrats and Republicans don't determine elections anymore," says Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat of the District of Columbia. "Independents do."

"Bipartisanship" is now a buzzword for politicians eager to step outside party lines.

"We have an obligation to our nation to be bipartisan when we can," says Feingold.

Other progressive legislators vehemently disagree. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, wrote an op-ed recently calling Democratic proponents of bipartisanship "Bush's Democrats." Jackson has vowed to hold every Democrat who voted for Ashcroft's confirmation accountable in the upcoming elections. He sees the trend toward bipartisanship and centrism in his party as a slippery slope: "A conservative Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1992 selected an even more conservative running mate, Al Gore, who in 2000 selected an even more conservative running mate, Joseph Lieberman. By helping to shift the Democratic Party and the country further right, a very conservative George Bush could select an ultraconservative Dick Cheney as his running mate--and win."

Bipartisanship is a sign of the Democrats' weak progressive values, Jackson argues. Democrats' drift to the center is the reason Ralph Nader was able to draw votes away from Al Gore, he says. And when Bush touts bipartisanship, what he's really talking about is a coalition built on white racism, he adds. Southern Democrats were, after all, the party of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. With this history, it's no surprise they don't mind making common cause with the party of Ashcroft. "It is this legacy of conservative, Southern Democrats in Congress with whom Bush intends to work," Jackson says.

Russ Feingold does not fit that model, however. Not only is he a progressive, Midwestern Democrat, he justifies his vote for Ashcroft precisely because he opposes the centrist drift of the Democratic Party. If Ashcroft could be blocked on ideological grounds, he argues, so could progressives like Ramsey Clark or Ted Kennedy, whose values are left of center on issues like the death penalty.

Barney Frank also points out a flaw in Jackson's analysis of the Southern Democrats: Seven out of nine Southern Democrats voted against Ashcroft. "Every Democrat up for reelection in 2004 and every Democrat who wants to run for President opposed him," Frank says.

Unlike Jackson, Frank doesn't blame the Democratic Party for drifting away from its core principles. (And he doesn't miss a chance to take a swing at The Progressive for being overly friendly to Nader: "I suppose you think Ashcroft is utterly unimportant since there's no difference between the two parties," he chides.)

But Jackson is right in his general critique of the creeping conservatism of his party. And the issue among Southern Democrats is complex. Those who are up for reelection are engaged in a complicated dance. They know they need black votes to win back their seats in 2004--hence the votes against Ashcroft. But Eleanor Holmes Norton says, "You watch them do some conservative things when it comes to tax cuts to give something to the white, conservative voters." If one thing is clear about the Democratic Party now, it's that hanging on to seats in the divided Congress rules the day. Members will be taking stands to protect their seats, appeal to local constituencies, and put party unity second. "Without a President, we don't frame national issues. What happens is people split according to their political circumstances," says Norton.

Already, national gun control legislation is going by the boards. In a few key states--especially in the West, where Bush won--the Democrats calculate that the gun issue could cost them Congressional races. With control of Congress hanging in the balance, they aren't going to make a big stand on the issue as a party. "You won't have [House Minority Leader Dick] Gephardt out in front on that issue like before," says Norton.

Norton, who has been wooed by Bush as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says she's learning quickly not to underestimate him. "I don't want any more meetings!" she says. She sees parallels with Ronald Reagan, who was able to pick off Democratic votes and leave the party divided.

Feingold, for his part, objects to the notion that he was somehow coopted by the Republicans when he cast his vote for Ashcroft. Many speculated that he had made a deal to gain Republican support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Not so, he says. "If anything it makes it harder," he explains. "The last thing I want to do is generate controversy and division around my name. I have never made a connection like that between two issues, or struck a deal, and I think that people who know me know I never would. I think it's a consequence of cynicism, and it's understandable. People think if someone honestly makes a hard choice and is very straight in explaining the reasons for it, there must be some hidden motive. There is no hidden reason."

Feingold can also credibly argue that he didn't need to cast a vote for Ashcroft to please a bunch of moderate, Midwestern constituents. Then again, he has built his reputation on maverick positions and breaking ranks. Just by taking those stands--not because of the substance of them--he can solidify his support among all those independent voters.

As for the rest of the Democrats, it may be a while before they form a clear, united front. "The Democrats have a lot of thinking to do," says Norton. "We haven't had to do strategic thinking for a long time, when we had the master politician in the White House. And we didn't do so well when we were twelve years in the wilderness, either. Reagan ruled the world, and Congress went with him."

Frank is more optimistic. "There was more opposition to Ashcroft than any cabinet position since John Tower," he points out. "I think you'll see the Democrats be a more oppositional party--on vouchers, where we seem to be winning, on trying to get a fairer tax cut, on trade, where there will be a more coherent opposition to deals that don't protect workers and the environment--now that Clinton is gone. The differences between the parties will sharpen some."

But Feingold is the most optimistic of all. "I think there's a progressive, populist wellspring out there that could lead to retaking power. It's as close as the next election. For progressives to get in a defeatist mindset after this election was won on the votes is simply wrong.... There are going to be civil rights and environmental policies coming out of this Administration that are probably not going to be good. That will provide sufficient fuel to make the opposition to the Ashcroft nomination look like nothing."

In the short run, the Democrats may show some strength on judicial appointments. The forty-two votes against Ashcroft constitute enough to sustain a filibuster in the Senate and successfully block appointees in the mold of Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia.

Here, at least, Feingold plans to join with his Democratic colleagues. Somewhat confusingly, he asserts that ideological litmus tests are OK when they are applied to judges, but not to cabinet appointees. "My traditional understanding as a student of constitutional law actually is that an ideological litmus test might not be acceptable for judges, either," he says. "But since the Bork nomination, I've come to believe that we may have to consider ideological issues when we look at lifetime appointments and whether a person can be a fair judge."

Feingold concedes that Ashcroft could do "great damage." He even suggests that he might have to change his mind. "Now if he doesn't do what he said, we will have learned a lesson," he says. "I will have to revisit my views on cabinet appointments, just as I had to revisit my views on judicial appointments."

By then, of course, it might be a little late.

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Senator Russ Feingold supports confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:The Dubbing W.
Next Article:Counter-Inaugural Poem.

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