Amid growing speculation that the FBI's top brass ignored warnings about terrorist plans prior to al Qaeda's September 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft on May 30 responded as only he knows how: by brandishing the Even Bigger Stick. Ashcroft's Justice Dept. issued a sweeping array of measures designed to strengthen the beleaguered bureau's investigative powers. Chief among them: a directive that gives the FBI unprecedented leeway to listen in--or barge in--on suspected radicals.
Liberals reacted with predictable outrage, branding the moves a naked assault on civil liberties. Less predictable was the fiery response of conservative House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., who blasted Justice for trashing long-standing policies without consulting Congress. The Wisconsin Republican, who has a rep as a man with a long memory, "is not somebody you want to p--- off," says American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene. "The Attorney General should have known better."
That's Ashcroft's life these days: He's caught in a Left-Right crossfire and often hands foes more ammo. For 16 months, the nation's top cop has played the role of George W. Bush's lightning rod. GOP operatives are delighted that Democratic liberals and civil libertarians have directed their ire at Ashcroft rather than compassionate conservative George W. "He gets very good marks as a heat shield," says Tom Cole, former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee.
As Ronald Reagan discovered with controversial Attorney General Edwin Meese III, conservative Justice Dept. heads can serve a purpose by absorbing political shots intended for the President. But the body armor only lasts so long, and at the rate Ashcroft is drawing fire, there is reason to begin questioning his staying power in the Bush war Cabinet.
For one thing, there is mounting evidence that the AG is losing ground among swing voters. While 56% of Americans gave Ashcroft positive marks in a May 15-21 Harris Poll, his approval rating among both moderates and independents dropped to 52%, down 10 points among centrists since January.
If the trend continues, it could set off alarm bells at the White House, where Ashcroft is considered a team player and a political asset. His strong opposition to gun control and abortion resonate with the GOP's social conservative base. And business interests applauded Justice's decision to settle the Microsoft antitrust case.
However, a series of missteps has caused even a few conservatives to question the ex-Missouri senator's management ability and fondness for Big Government solutions to the terrorist threat. In recent months, five court decisions have nullified various Ashcroft anti-terrorism policies. And some police departments have protested Justice's plan to have local cops detain illegal immigrants.
Then there's Ashcroft's attempt to transform the FBI into a counter-terrorism organization. Washington-watchers wonder whether he can change the FBI's insular culture and its reputation for infighting. Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess likens Ashcroft's plight to one faced a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt with his rambunctious daughter Alice. "Teddy said he couldn't both run the country and run Alice Roosevelt," Hess recalls. "It seems that Ashcroft can run either the FBI or Justice, because you can't do both."
Despite the furor, the White House says it remains firmly behind Ashcroft. And the AG's anti-terrorism measures are backed by a frightened populace. In wartime, says St. Mary's University political scientist Andy Hernandez, "civil liberties will always lose to security." Still, if Bush gets burned by the fires at Justice, it might be time for a new heat shield. One of the hottest Democratic draws on the campaign trail isn't even a Democrat. He's Republican-turned-Independent Senator James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Already, Jeffords has headlined events for endangered Dem incumbents Paul D. Wellstone (Minn.) and Jean Carnahan (Mo.). He even traveled to the President's home state to raise money for Democrat Ron Kirk in a closely contested open-seat race. Jeffords draws the line at campaigning against GOP incumbents. From education to health care, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has a history of cutting deals with Republicans. His latest: giving small business up to $30 billion in tax breaks in exchange for a $1.50 increase in the $5.15 minimum wage. By doing so, Kennedy has called the bluff of corporate lobbyists who demanded goodies in return for any minimum-pay hike. Small-business reps remain skeptical that the Kennedy tax cuts would offset higher wage costs. The Administration will acknowledge in its midyear budget update what economists have been predicting for nearly a year: There will be no surpluses through the end of President Bush's first term. The White House budget review, due within a month, will project deficits until fiscal 2005, when modest surpluses could return. The Senate Budget Committee's GOP staff projects a $137 billion deficit for fiscal 2002. Last year, the surplus was $127 billion.