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BUSH DEFTLY STOLE THE SCENE ON BREAD-AND-BUTTER ISSUES

The difference between British and American politics, a wag once said, can be seen in the way they hunt foxes: The British kill the fox.

And so John Ashcroft was left standing by the Democrats, but just barely.

The Democrats needed President Bush's tattered attorney general to be their poster boy.

To Democrats who blew a presidential race, and are mired in the congressional minority, Ashcroft will be a matchless source of desperately needed campaign money.

A host of identity groups -- those dealing with women's rights, homosexual rights, abortion rights, the Jesse Jackson spoils system, the public schools monopoly, the Million Moms -- will hype Republican Ashcroft as a hooded white male menace combining the horrors of Attila, Godzilla and King Kong in their pitches for money.

On the way to the 58-42 Senate confirmation vote, something significant and not entirely helpful happened to some Democrats, particularly Charles E. Schumer of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

More than any others in the Senate confirmation debate, Schumer and Durbin tied the fortunes of the Democrats to these identity groups.

In the past, Democrats strung issue groups together. Democrats of the 1920s, for example, linked their fortunes to repeal of prohibition, union power, Jim Crow in the South and the passions of emerging white immigrant groups in the North. And they lost.

A decade later, the Depression transformed this into a winning formula. The party, however, had the smarts then to talk about a noodle on the table, and a roof over one's head in the 1930s.

But not in the past two weeks. While Schumer, Durbin, California's Sen. Barbara Boxer and Patrick Leahy of Vermont thought they were making hay with campus issues of the 1970s and 1980s, Republican President George Bush deftly stole the scene on bread-and-butter matters that were once the glue of the old Democratic coalitions -- the ones that won.

While Schumer was inveighing against Ashcroft's "passionate views on choice, civil rights, separation of church and state and gun control," the new president was selling better schools to the nation.

As Leahy was blasting Ashcroft's "zealous advocacy" of this and that, Bush was talking prescription drugs.

As Boxer piled on about Ashcroft's ideology, Bush was talking about tax cuts, and took photo-ops reaching out to the Congressional Black Coalition and the Democrats' Congressional retreat in Pennsylvania.

As the Democrats tried to outdo each other appealing to narrow, however deserving, interest groups, Bush deftly seized an opportunity to look broadly presidential and reconciling.

To emphasize the contrast, Bush talked about the future as Democrats dwelt on the election.

"Where we hoped for reconciliation and healing after the last elections," Schumer said, "we received a nomination (Ashcroft) that threw salt on the country's wounds."

Has Bush got salt? He's going to make the lawyer who pleaded his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Ted Olson, his solicitor general -- the second-ranking man in Ashcroft's Justice Department.

Something subtle and dramatic happened in the debate. For the first time in memory -- perhaps in a century -- rhetoric about a nominee's beliefs assumed the same prominence as his conduct.

Time and again, Schumer scored Ashcroft's "values and beliefs," his "views," his "ideological extremism." Schumer's approach mirrored those of Leahy, Boxer and Durbin.

Wisely, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., said they thought Ashcroft's record, his actions toward blacks, gays and women were enough to warrant a "no" vote.

Not needing a black leather jacket, Clinton eschewed the tempting role of ideological motorcycle gang leader. She made no big floor speech, but voted "no" just the same.

Ashcroft's behavior was plenty reason enough to deny him confirmation. Why, then, get into Ashcroft's "world view" as Schumer did?

Behavior, conduct and a person's acts were the grist for debate in the confirmation fights over Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, and John Tower, nominated for secretary of defense.

Mind-reading in a confirmation debate is novel.

Worse, things can get extra dicey when you start guessing what another man thinks.

For example, Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho said on the floor that Ashcroft's critics were establishing a religious test for high office. The critics, Craig charged, imply "that a Christian person, a person of faith cannot be trusted to serve. . . ." Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said Ashcroft was victimized for his religious faith, as did Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Does America want to go there?

After the vote, Schumer and other Ashcroft opponents said that their opposition was "a shot across the bow," across Bush's bow on future nominations. What such shots will lead to nobody knows.

It's hard to see them as a pathway for a Democratic return to power.

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