Ashcroft’s Power Play

Two years ago, Mother Jones’ William Saletan took a closer look at then-Sen. John Ashcroft, and wondered if his Reaganesque ‘folksy morality’ would play in 2000. Now that Ashcroft is poised to become the top US law enforcement official, we thought we’d bring this piece out for an encore.


Twenty years ago, when the rumble of a conservative juggernaut rattled the 1978 congressional elections, Democrats took comfort in the Republican Party’s disarray. The Republican establishment of Gerald Ford and George Bush was being overrun by an evangelical right-wing movement widely considered too extreme to win the presidency. Liberal activists prayed that in 1980 the GOP would nominate the candidate of the right, Ronald Reagan. They didn’t understand that the turmoil of 1978 foreshadowed an apocalypse, and that Reagan was its horseman.

In 1998, the juggernaut is rumbling again. Democratic insiders, facing another George Bush, are praying once more that Republicans will nominate the candidate of the right, Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri. There they go again.

If you haven’t heard of Ashcroft, you will soon. In 1996, conservative Christians splintered their support among Pat Buchanan, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Bob Dole, and Alan Keyes. Right now, they’re coalescing behind Ashcroft. Though he’s barely a blip in the polls, Ashcroft has already rounded up the unofficial support of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, James Dobson, and several of Buchanan’s former aides and key supporters. Their calculus is simple: The field of Republican presidential candidates for 2000 is divided between those who are principally committed to moral issues and those who have the mainstream credibility to be elected. Ashcroft is the only candidate who passes both tests.

Here’s how Ashcroft’s scenario plays out: First, he secures his base of moral conservatives against Buchanan, Gary Bauer, and Dan Quayle, who are considered unelectable. Meanwhile, Steve Forbes consolidates his support among economic conservatives, and George W. Bush defeats Lamar Alexander for the GOP’s third constituency, moderate pragmatists. That sets up a three-way race in which Ashcroft holds a crucial advantage: Compared with the other two camps, moral conservatives are more focused on their pet issues, more likely to vote and campaign for their man, and more suspicious of converts. Thus, Ashcroft overtakes Forbes, just as Buchanan overtook Gramm in 1996. And unlike Buchanan, who couldn’t finish off Dole, Ashcroft has the political credibility, optimistic demeanor, and breadth of appeal to outrun Bush.

The conventional wisdom is that Ashcroft can be beaten in the general election by being dismissed as a zealot on social issues, particularly on abortion. But that strategy may not work. Thanks to the Lewinsky scandal, disgust with sexual decadence has eclipsed many Americans’ fear of moral McCarthyism. Against this background, Ashcroft looks less like Robertson and more like Jimmy Carter, whose ethical purity endeared him to voters revolted by Richard Nixon’s disgrace. And like Carter, Ashcroft assuages concerns about his religious agenda by tempering his piety with humility.

Ashcroft’s Carteresque innocence complements his Reaganesque gift for framing divisive moral issues in benign ways. In an interview with Mother Jones, he displayed the same genial, untroubled sincerity that has charmed listeners on the campaign trail. Unlike Buchanan, Ashcroft talks about what he’s for, not what he’s against. When he speaks of abortion, he shows audiences a sonogram of his grandchild in the womb. “God’s precious gift of life must be protected in law and nurtured in love,” he urges, appealing more to compassion than to outrage. And where Buchanan speaks of America’s decline and searches for villains, Ashcroft echoes Reagan’s optimism. “Occasionally, I hear people say ‘America has peaked; our best days are over,'” he says in his television ads. “I reject that with every fiber of my body.”

Meanwhile, Ashcroft has improved on Reagan by broadening what counts as a moral issue. “It’s not the presence of divisive issues that hurts the Republican Party,” he argues. “It’s the absence of a unifying agenda.” The sinews of that agenda, in his view, are economic issues with moral overtones. His favorite cause is repealing the “marriage penalty,” a quirk in the tax code that imposes higher taxes on some married dual-income couples. Ashcroft can sell this to economic conservatives because it’s a tax cut. He can sell it to social conservatives because it’s pro-family. And he can sell it to independents and Democrats because it supports women who work outside the home.

Another idea Ashcroft thinks he can pitch to a broad audience is “charitable choice,” which lets religious institutions administer government-funded social services. He inserted a charitable choice provision into the 1996 welfare reform law and is now trying to expand it. Economic conservatives like it because it privatizes government; social conservatives like it because it supports religion; and many Democrats like its humanitarianism. “It’s not that [conservatives] don’t care,” Ashcroft tells Mother Jones. “It’s that they understand that some of these needs are more effectively met, more comprehensively and compassionately understood, in the context of cultural rather than governmental solutions.”

Ashcroft’s most authentic improvement on Reaganism is his moral approach to the national debt, which tripled under Reagan. In campaign speeches, he outlines a 30-year plan to pay off the debt, citing the Boy Scouts’ principle that each scout should leave a campground cleaner than he found it. “If we rob the next generation of its opportunity to deploy its own resources,” says Ashcroft, “we will have not only done them a moral wrong, but probably taught them a moral wrong.”

On the other hand, Ashcroft has failed to grasp that since Reagan’s day, the range of moral issues has grown to include subjects that pit conservatism’s two guiding principles — morality and free enterprise — against one another. A case in point is the regulation of industries that prey on addicts.

Against gambling, Ashcroft has taken the side of morality. As governor of Missouri, he opposed riverboat gambling and a state lottery. When Republican activists convened in a Mississippi casino earlier this year, Ashcroft showed up and rebuked his hosts. “Our party should not sell its soul to the gambling lobby,” he declared.

But Ashcroft betrays no such concern about the liquor industry’s efforts to buy his soul. Despite his personal abstention from alcohol (his denomination, the Assemblies of God, forbids it) and his efforts as governor to prohibit Sunday liquor sales in Missouri, beer companies have plied Ashcroft with $44,500 since 1993. Last year, according to Electronic Media, beer lobbyists met with his staff and the staff of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) seeking to exempt beer ads from a hearing to be chaired by Burns on limiting alcohol advertising on television. The lobbyists got their wish after it was announced that Ashcroft would co-chair the hearing (which, in the end, was never held). Electronic Media suspected a quid pro quo, but a Burns aide said there was “no connection.”

It’s hard to believe liquor companies could buy Ashcroft when they can’t even buy him a drink. But it’s equally hard to believe any politician could imbibe so much liquor money without impairing his judgment. A few years ago, Ashcroft praised beer-makers in a video tribute produced by the Beer Institute of America. And in a campaign appearance in August, he admired beer vats and worked the assembly line at a brewery owned by Anheuser-Busch, which employs 5,000 Missourians and has donated $20,000 to Ashcroft’s PAC. When asked by Mother Jones about his relationship with Anheuser-Busch, Ashcroft gropes for rationalizations. “It’s a product that is in demand,” he argues. “And when it’s used responsibly, it’s like other products.”

That certainly can’t be said of tobacco. So why did Ashcroft spearhead the defeat of this year’s anti-tobacco bill? He denies he was trying to protect the industry, and to his credit, he has stopped taking tobacco money (though he accepted $8,000 from cigarette companies in his 1994 Senate campaign). His rush to the forefront of the anti-anti-tobacco movement illustrates a different kind of corruption: coalition politics. Ashcroft has been maneuvering relentlessly to endear himself to the GOP’s anti-tax lobby, whose interests coincide with those of the tobacco lobby.

Ashcroft’s moral argument against tobacco regulation — that people should be free to make bad choices — doesn’t jibe with his position on gambling. And his use of the tobacco tax issue in campaign appearances reeks of calculation. “If the Democrats want to run in the election this November on an $868 billion tax increase, [taking] from Reagan Democrats that kind of money, well, that’s the kind of campaign we’ll welcome,” he boasted on “Larry King Live.” “Reagan Democrats know the path to the Republican Party.”

The best argument Ashcroft makes against tobacco taxes is that they fall most heavily on the working poor. Indeed, his initial income tax reform plan, unveiled in January, was startlingly progressive: It lowered the marginal tax rate for the working poor to 10 percent, while leaving the tax rate for the rich at 40 percent. In a speech unveiling the plan, Ashcroft said it was “unfair” to deprive “working Americans” of tax advantages reserved for corporations. When asked why he hadn’t cut the top rate, he said the plan was “designed to help the working middle class.” But economic conservatives complained, and Ashcroft soon switched to a new plan that essentially would flatten the tax rate at 25 percent. Now his political team is circulating laudatory blurbs from influential supply-siders. Fairness, it seems, is no match for politics.

As Ashcroft advances in the presidential race, he will find a world more complicated than the one that embraced Reagan. In 1998, the evil empire is Philip Morris, industrial haze shrouds the shining cities on our hills, and Republican tax reformers have veered so far right they’ve run right out of America. The magic Ashcroft shares with Reagan is the simpleminded confidence that comes from an ideological lobotomy, a mental wall between hot-blooded moral rhetoric and cold-blooded economics. But that ideology’s time has passed. Senator Ashcroft, you cannot keep justice and freedom apart. Senator Ashcroft, tear down that wall.