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John Ashcroft Speaks Loudly and Carries a Big Stick

Since September 11, the nation's top cop, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, has been a man on many missions--fighting terrorists, buttressing bridges to social conservatives, and bringing a conservative philosophy to the Justice Dept. on everything from antitrust policy to euthanasia. In the process, the former Missouri senator and Presidential candidate has become a political lightning rod. "He's demonstrated an insensitivity of the grossest nature to the most cherished civil liberties," roars Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal group that monitors judicial picks. Robert Levy, a constitutional scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, adds that Ashcroft's tactics are acceptable "if you think the Bill of Rights is scrap paper."

But Ashcroft's activism is serving a purpose: shoring up support for Bush among religious conservatives worried that the President had been too accommodating to Democrats since the terrorist attacks. So far, there has been little fallout. A Nov. 8-11 Gallup Poll found that 77% of Americans approve of Ashcroft's handling of the war on terrorism.

MOVING QUICKLY. Apparently, Americans are willing to accept extraordinary measures to combat terrorist infiltrators. And that's Ashcroft's approach. He has pressured Congress to quickly pass an anti-terrorism bill that loosens restrictions on the government's use of electronic surveillance and allows detention of terrorism suspects without charges. He has implemented new rules allowing the feds to monitor certain conversations between lawyers and their clients. And he backed a Nov. 13 Presidential decree that would subject some terrorist suspects to American military courts--a tactic used against Nazi spies and saboteurs during World War II.

At the same time, Ashcroft, a pro-life stalwart, has sought to void Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law by reversing a 1998 opinion by then-Attorney General Janet Reno. And he has pleased business by announcing plans to shift enforcement dollars from antitrust, environmental protection, and civil rights to anti-terrorism--all while settling with Microsoft (MSFT).

President Bush has stood firmly behind Ashcroft, but the Attorney General's blunt style has created problems across the political spectrum. He angered Congress by suggesting that it would be held responsible for future terrorist acts if it failed to pass, within a week, the anti-terrorism curbs he was seeking. "The perception is this is what the American people want," says Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.). "But ultimately, it will hurt the American people and do nothing to help us catch the terrorists."

Ashcroft has also deepened the rift between the Administration and the legal Establishment. Earlier this year, he ended the American Bar Assn.'s traditional role as a pre-screener of judicial nominees. He further angered the ABA by moving to allow prosecutors to listen in when attorneys talk with their clients--if approved by a judge. "Since the reign of [Queen] Elizabeth I, we have understood the need for attorney-client privilege," says ABA President Robert E. Hirshon. "[This] will have a very chilling effect."

At the other end of the civil liberties argument are social conservatives like Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, who complains: "I'm a big supporter of Ashcroft, but I do not believe he's tough enough on the aliens." Ashcroft, who declined interview requests, can live with that kind of heat. His hard-line tactics are for the most part reassuring conservatives nervous about Bush's recent shift to the center. And if the terrorists can be kept at bay, the public is likely to conclude that the Attorney General's ends justify his means. White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels has figured out a way to unite Democrats and Republicans who had been feuding about government spending: Make everyone mad at him. After Daniels labeled the lawmakers "big spenders," House Republicans proposed an additional $11 billion in reconstruction aid for New York and Senate Dems sought $20 billion for infrastructure spending. Vice-President Dick Cheney is trying to soothe ruffled egos. When the Justice Dept. and Microsoft agreed to settle their longstanding antitrust suit, they agreed to buy space in The Washington Post and San Jose Mercury News to publish the 18-page accord. But presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly expressed skepticism about the breadth of their readership at a Nov. 6 hearing. The judge added The New York Times to the list. Losing out: The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Republicans are hoping that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be their secret weapon in 2002. House GOP leaders want the wildly popular Giuliani to campaign in closely contested races. It's a role filled last year by maverick Arizona Senator John McCain. But Giuliani's appeal may not be as effective as McCain's populist agenda. Rudy's ads extolling GOP gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia failed to sway voters on Nov. 6.

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