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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Can Democrats defeat Bush's Cabinet choices?

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While President-elect George W. Bush's opponents are rallying to try to knock off anywhere from one to three of his Cabinet selections, they face a decidedly uphill fight.

In fact, they'll need what amounts to a "smoking gun" to derail John Ashcroft, Gale Norton or Linda Chavez. And that "smoking gun" might possibly have to include an ethics issue, not merely a question of policy.

Liberal and Democratic groups are making noise about the nominees to raise their own profiles (and money) and to put the Bush administration on the defensive. If they happen to knock off one of the nominees, so much the better, from their point of view.

Of the trio of targets, Ashcroft, the former Missouri senator and Bush's selection for attorney general, has taken most of the early criticism. But he's probably the least likely of the three nominees to be derailed.

Women's groups and African American activists have been complaining about Ashcroft's record ever since Bush nominated him. Their complaints -- which include the fact that he opposes legal abortion and led the fight against a black judge -- are likely to get traction only if they can portray him as a radical and/or a racist. But while Ashcroft is very, very conservative, that's not the same thing as being a racist or an extremist.

Ashcroft's status as a former senator is a huge asset in his fight for confirmation, as is the way he accepted defeat in November. The nominee's political record also insulates him against some of the charges: A graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago law school, he was elected by the voters of Missouri as attorney general and as governor. If he's a racist and extremist, how did he win so many elections? Does that mean a majority of Missouri voters also are racists?

It's interesting and significant that most of the criticism of Ashcroft has so far come from Jesse Jackson, Pat Ireland and a few Missouri Democrats, not from influential Democratic senators. Unless Democratic Sens. John Breaux, Byron Dorgan, Fritz Hollings and Evan Bayh start signaling that they have serious doubts about the nomination, there isn't any reason to believe that Ashcroft will be rejected by the Senate.

Interior nominee Norton, a 46-year-old lawyer who served as Colorado's attorney general, and Labor nominee Chavez, a 53-year-old former civil rights commissioner, could have more problems than Ashcroft.

Both still appear likely to be confirmed. But unlike Ashcroft, neither Norton nor Chavez served in the Senate -- which means they'll get a different kind of scrutiny than he will.

A one-time protege of James Watt, Norton is a libertarian who has a long record of public service. That extensive record may offer plenty of fodder for opponents, but they'll need more than the general assertion that Norton is "too conservative."

Chavez could have even more problems. As a columnist, her job has been to advocate her ideology and to take on the opposition. Her criticism of affirmative action and of bilingual education has angered many traditionally Democratic constituencies, including organized labor and the minority community.

But again, documentation is the key for the Democrats. And criticism of the nominees will have to build among members of the Senate, not merely from liberal groups who opposed Bush's candidacy.

I don't know if any of those nominated by Bush have skeletons in their closets. If they do, we'll know about it soon enough. But it will probably take a skeleton or two to keep Bush from keeping the Cabinet members he has announced. That's simply the way Washington works.



Friday, January 5, 2001


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