Death by a Thousand Quotes

In Washington, as the cabinet-confirmation follies are proving once again, an ill-considered remark will hurt your political prospects far more than your actual beliefs.

| Fri Jan. 19, 2001 1:00 AM PST

If you're searching for another reason why Americans hate politics and politicians, look no further than the cabinet nomination circus.

Nobody expected George W. Bush to govern like a Democrat, or even a Rockefeller Republican. But in the aftermath of the extremely tight (s)election, most Washington Kremlinogolists expected Bush to pick a moderate cabinet, maybe with a Democrat or two -- anything to prevent the Jan. 20 inaugural festivities from degenerating into a Seattle-style riot.

As it turns out, we got a cabinet packed with profoundly conservative Latinos, women, and African-Americans. "Where did they find these right-wing minority people?" a pal asked me recently. "It's so selfish of Bush to take them all out of circulation. What if someone else needs one?"

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But as the Senate revs up the confirmation process, Democratic officials are acting like nit-picking nabobs of nihilism rather than the betrayed ideologues the public needs and deserves. Ideology, by Congressional consensus, is off-limits; instead, you have to torpedo your opponent with chickenshit trivialities. An ill-considered remark will do a cabinet candidate far more political harm than a heartfelt belief, no matter how stupid or outlandish the latter.

This idiotic aversion to ideology dates back to the confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Bork's nomination was defeated exclusively on ideology: He was just too conservative for America. Democrats tried the same tack with the equally-reactionary Thomas, but got nowhere. What nearly did "Bork" Thomas, however, was Anita Hill's unverifiable assertion that then-Judge Thomas had a taste for porn movies and jokes containing the word "pubic" in their punchlines. The effectiveness of dwelling on such relatively irrelevant crap to sabotage candidacies was an important lesson for both parties, and one that we're living with today.

The latest triumph of the politics of iotae came last week with the withdrawal of Linda Chavez, who'd been up for the Labor Secretary spot, over the devastating revelation that she'd employed an illegal immigrant from Guatemala as a nanny. The plain truth is that Chavez would have made life suck for millions of employees. She's on record as opposing raising the minimum wage, calling women who sue for sexual harassment "crybabies" and asserting that "discriminating against employees who won't work overtime or who will put in fewer hours per week in a salaried position isn't irrational, it may be good business."

Chavez's nomination should have been opposed because she's a right-wing extremist who obviously hates workers -- period. But Democrats couldn't say that; they had to trip her up on an ironic technicality.

The nomination of former Missouri Sen, John Ashcroft to be attorney general, which as of this writing remains up in the air, is another classic example of going after an ideological opponent by emphasizing inanities.

In his 1998 book "Lessons From A Father To His Son," Ashcroft writes that he tries to "invite God's presence" when making important decisions. He also compares his political triumphs and losses to resurrections and crucifixions. It's pretty clear that this guy's boat doesn't exactly make it all the way across the River Jordan. But the Dems would never ask the obvious question: Does America really need a Bible nut as its chief law-enforcement official?

Abortion-rights advocates, whose views are shared by roughly 80 percent of Americans, rightly wonder whether a virulently pro-life attorney general would much care if abortion clinics began blowing up all over the place. But despite a tip-o'-the-hat to pro-choicers in Sen. Ted Kennedy's opening remarks at Ashcroft's hearings, the abortion issue was quickly deflated by Ashcroft's lukewarm pledge to enforce existing laws protecting legal abortion.

Conversely, the media loves Ashcroft's remarks to the retro-Confederate rag Southern Partisan. "We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda," Ashcroft was infamously quoted saying. But despite his ignorance of Civil War history -- if fighting for the right to own people isn't perverse, what is? -- such opinions are fairly commonplace among conservative southern whites. What's unusual is that the quote is written down at all and the publication in which it appears.

The most recent attempt to derail his nomination centers on the incredibly banal issue of his filibuster which derailed the confirmation of David Satcher as Clinton's Surgeon General (yawwwwwwn). But by far the week's most amusing political moment occurred with the search for a speech that Ashcroft delivered at Bob Jones University in May 1999. "Exactly what Mr. Ashcroft said at the university, a Christian fundamentalist institution in South Carolina, has been a mystery," The New York Times salivated on Jan. 12. "[Opponents] suspect that -- given the highly conservative audience Mr. Ashcroft addressed -- his comments might have included something so inflammatory as to prevent Mr. Ashcroft ... from being confirmed."

Here's a case where even within the paradigm of insignificance, greater sub-issues are overlooked. Ashcroft's speech at Bob Jones ended up containing nothing controversial. But the bigger question -- isn't agreeing to talk at a college with a long history of bigotry and racism a tacit endorsement of that bigotry and racism? -- never got asked.

Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton has also drawn fire for a 1996 speech drawing a comparison between southern secession and states' rights in which she claimed "we lost too much" when the Confederacy lost the Civil War. The NAACP's Julian Bond said that Norton "exhibited a wanton insensitivity toward slavery." Never mind that Norton's bizarre opinions about the War Between the States or her take on slavery has absolutely nothing to do with her duties at the Interior Department. If Norton goes down, the slavery issue will be the cause of her demise. Far more relevant issues -- that she always sides with developers over conservationists, that she's soft on pollution, that she even lobbied the Colorado Legislature on behalf of the lead industry against bills that would have protected children from lead-paint poisoning -- simply don't get traction, as they say in the Beltway.

Of all the Bush nominees, Defense Secretary-designate Donald Rumsfeld seems most likely to breeze through the Senate conformation process. To be sure, Rumsfeld's pledge to beef up defense spending will ruin the possibility of paying off the national debt any time in the next century, hurting the economy. He'll squander billions of dollars on Reagan's idiotic, abandoned Star Wars missile defense system and continue our ill-advised adventure in propping up Colombia's corrupt dictatorship.

But don't look for even the most liberal of Democrats to stand up against this hardcore right-wing Republican. After all, this guy doesn't have a nanny problem.

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