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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2001 / 21 Teves, 5761

John H. Fund

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Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters -- IN ADDITION to picking a man with proven executive experience, George W. Bush is making an important and symbolic statement in appointing John Ashcroft as attorney general: Americans who believe deeply in their faith may hold the highest offices in the land. The same media commentators who hailed Al Gore's selection of Joe Lieberman, an "observant" Jew who frequently invoked G-d on the campaign trail, have worried that Mr. Ashcroft's moralistic view of the world renders him unfit to serve. The Village Voice has declared him "The Dark Angel of the Right." Others mutter about his Pentecostal religious views and make snide remarks about his refusal to smoke, drink or dance.

Most of the opposition that will surface in the confirmation hearings that begin today is ideological, opposed to Mr. Ashcroft's conservative views. But some of the opposition is rooted in pure politics. Were Mr. Ashcroft to be rejected or see his nomination withdrawn, the news would demoralize the Republican Party's most loyal voters--evangelical Christians. Without them, Republicans would have lost not only the White House but both houses of Congress last November. The only chance GOP Senate moderates may have to keep their chairmanships after the 2002 election is to vote to confirm Mr. Ashcroft so that his supporters will want to go to the polls next time.

In a time when only half of Americans vote, both parties know that winning often involves motivating their base voters. It's no secret that Democrats' most loyal constituency is African-Americans, who represented 10% of all voters last year and cast their ballots 9 to 1 for Al Gore. The equivalent power base for Republicans are those who identify themselves as part of the "religious right." They were 14% of all voters and gave over 80% support to Mr. Bush. That means some 18% of Al Gore's vote came from blacks, and 23% of George W. Bush's voters were members of the religious right.

Those groups represent each party's base voters, and that explains both why the Clinton-Gore administration delivered federal contracts to Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH and why Mr. Bush declined to join John McCain in blasting Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

In a country as diverse as the U.S., the only way to assemble a majority coalition is to include many members who would never have dinner with each other. Democrats have understood that for decades. The coalition FDR assembled included Southern segregationists, Northern urban blacks, union members, intellectuals, Jews and ethnic whites led by machine mayors like Chicago's Richard J. Daley. That coalition held for some 35 years before it began to crack up over civil rights, Vietnam and the counterculture.

Republicans have assembled the makings of their own coalition in recent years: entrepreneurs, ancestral Northeastern Republicans, conservative Catholics, nearly half of the Asian vote, Cuban-Americans, evangelical Christians. Each of the elements of what Grover Norquist calls "the leave-us-alone coalition" is represented among Mr. Bush's cabinet appointees. Politically they belong there, as much as the pols who appeared on the "balanced tickets" Democrats used to assemble in New York City (as one wag put it "a Jew, an Irishman, an Italian, a Slav, and in later years seasoned with a black and Puerto Rican").

Some commentators realize it is important for evangelical Christians to be brought into high positions in government. "It is healthy for this particular group of Americans, whose paranoia has grown apace these last eight years, to be more integrated in our public life, not ostracized or marginalized," writes Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic. "If Ashcroft defies expectations, Bush will have done a lot to encourage the maturation of the sectarian religious right into a grown-up lobby in a diverse culture."

That's precisely what strategically oriented Democrats fear. A grown-up lobby is one that is more effective politically, and in part that's why they want Mr. Ashcroft either rejected or neutered. The ferocity of their assault must be understood in political terms. A man of deep faith, he won statewide office five times in Missouri, the state that epitomizes Middle America both geographically and politically. (The winner carried it in 24 of the last century's 25 presidential elections.)

In his quarter-century public career, Mr. Ashcroft has proved that he exercises power responsibly, can appeal to moderate voters and upholds laws with which he disagrees, such as those involving abortion and gambling--all while remaining a man of deep religious faith and strong moral views.

That's what makes him so dangerous to liberals. He identifies with a bloc of voters that used to vote for Democrats in large numbers until the party helped make the 1960s counterculture the dominant culture. Naming the pious Mr. Lieberman was an unusual effort to repair that image, but it didn't work. So now Democrats have decided to target John Ashcroft. His confirmation would cement evangelical Christians as an integral element of an emerging Republican majority.

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©2000, John H. Fund