- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

No surprises. Well, no big ones, but maybe one or two little ones.

Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who hangs out with Teddy Kennedy, nevertheless voted to confirm John Ashcroft as George W.'s attorney general, and Joe Lieberman, who walks to synagogue and rides whatever opportunity may be at hand, voted not to.

The margin of 58 to 42 was about what the Senate leaders, both Democrat and Republican, expected as the clerk began to call the roll.

Anyone who sifted through the roll call could tell, and quickly, that the vote was not really about John Ashcroft. The senators know him well, and know that the questions raised about his character, his decency and integrity are as authentic as Teddy Kennedy's ethics or Joe Lieberman's elaborate professions of religiosity.

Jean Carnahan, who hitched a ride on her husband's funeral hearse to Washington to succeed Mr. Ashcroft as the junior senator from Missouri, voted against him because he "was just too divisive for our country." Naturally, her vote was "an act of conscience."

Some conscience. Some gratitude. Nobody has yet elected Jean Carnahan to anything, and she would not be a senator if John Ashcroft had not as a gesture of respect for her waived an election contest in the courts that he very likely would have won. She was appointed to fill the seat after her husband, killed in a plane crash a fortnight before the election, defeated Mr. Ashcroft after he was dead. Missouri law specifies that an eligible candidate must be a "resident" of Missouri. Once dead, most people stay that way. Except in Missouri, where Mrs. Carnahan discovered opportunity in the wreckage of the plane.

Mr. Lieberman, who said he had known John Ashcroft for 40 years and had never questioned his decency, honesty and integrity, insisted, before anyone asked, that Mr. Ashcroft's devout Christian faith was not the reason he voted no. "It is Senator Ashcroft's record, not his religion, we should judge today." (Judging his religion, presumably, can wait until tomorrow.)

Mr. Lieberman no doubt thinks he should have been Mr. Ashcroft's model. Joe renounced himself, his Orthodox Jewish faith shrinking it from "Orthodox" to "observant" to assuage those offended by actual religious belief and even his political convictions when he was chosen to campaign as Al Gore's sidekick. When he returned to the Senate last month, Joe tweaked his convictions once more, as if tweaking software. He hasn't erased the memory of the high life of a presidential campaign and his colleagues see him now nurturing pretensions of running again. Hence his vote to ingratiate himself with the hard left that controls Democratic nominating conventions.

It was precisely Mr. Ashcroft's faith, however, that was too much for Chuck Schumer of New York, a man doomed to being Junior in the permanent shadow of Hillary Clinton. Mr. Schumer, no doubt struggling to get noticed, told Mr. Ashcroft during the contentious hearings that his Christian faith was of such intensity that it appeared to have affected his mind. Yesterday he had to vote no to keep crazy Christers out of the Cabinet.

The Ashcroft vote is further evidence that the party's bump-and-grind toward the center may be short-lived. Bill Clinton, a pragmatist for all his Priapean adventuring, is gone, and with him any impulse the party may have had toward the moderate middle.

Several Democrats from the South, where lately signs of life were detected in what had looked a lot like Democratic corpses, voted against the prevailing sentiment in their states. Fritz Hollings ignored a resolution by South Carolina's organized Baptists, casting his vote against Mr. Ashcroft, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana similarly discounted the wishes of evangelical Christian constituencies ever more likely to drift to an emerging Republican majority.

Mr. Ashcroft was sworn in late Thursday by Justice Clarence Thomas, with whom he had shared an office in Jefferson City in the 1970s when they were assistant state attorneys general. President Bush pronounced himself "very pleased" to have his Cabinet in place, "ready to work for the American people." Said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "The votes have been bipartisan, and this vote by definition, too, is bipartisan."

But only by stretching the definition. Accusing an innocent man of racism, by mocking his religious faith for cheap advantage, and twisting arms to get senators to vote against a man they all knew had been grievously lied about, the Democratic leadership signaled that the party intends to fight very dirty, indeed.

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