St. John Ashcroft’s Passion

Is there any more surprising postelection development than the canonization of Republican Sen. John Ashcroft? In the past, Ashcroft has had the reputation for being rather hard-edged and mean. Last year, for instance, Missouri Republicans released a photograph from 1961 showing Ashcroft’s 2000 Senate opponent, Mel Carnahan, in blackface at a Kiwanis Club minstrel show. (Ashcroft denied to USA Todaythat he had a hand in circulating the photograph but didn’t mind adding, “I was shocked by the picture.”) Now, however, Ashcroft is being praised by conservatives as the anti-Gore for graciously conceding his Senate race to Carnahan even though Carnahan was not alive on Election Day (he died in an Oct. 16 plane crash; Carnahan’s wife Jean will be appointed in his place by Missouri’s Democratic governor) and even though there were serious allegations of voter fraud in St. Louis. The praise has been picked up and even amplified by the mainstream media. On the Nov. 30 Larry King Live, guest host Roger Cossack began an interview with Ashcroft thusly:

Cossack: [Y]ou had a clear right to bring a challenge to that election under law. That–whether you would have won or whether you wouldn’t have won, I don’t know, but clearly you had a colorable lawsuit to challenge that election on a couple of different grounds–you chose not to. Why?Ashcroft: Well, I think there are some things more [important] than personal political ambition and personal politics. … And for me to try to respond to the lawyers–and there were many of them who said, you have rights here, you can vindicate them–would have resulted in the public interest being denied by my private interests, perhaps for some maybe being sustained. But that’s not why I’m in politics.

Cossack concluded the interview by calling Ashcroft “a fine gentleman and a fine representative [sic] from the state of Missouri.”

Ashcroft’s Nov. 8 concession to Jean Carnahan was indeed graceful, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that it was divorced from political ambition or that Ashcroft’s situation was at all comparable to Gore’s. First of all, there’s the matter of the margin of victory. In the Florida vote on which the presidential race turns, Bush’s current certified lead is 537 votes, with 14,051 votes currently in dispute. In the Missouri vote on which the Senate race turned, Carnahan’s certified lead is 48,960 votes, with about 491 votes currently in dispute. According to Thor Hearne, an attorney for the Bush-Cheney campaign who has been investigating the voter-fraud allegations in St. Louis, the number of disputed votes could easily rise into the thousands, “but I don’t know that we’re into the ten thousands.” (The entire population of St. Louis today is only about 333,000.) Although Hearne has uncovered credible evidence suggesting illegal activity on the part of Missouri Democrats, “I don’t think that the number of votes cast would have changed the Ashcroft race,” he told Chatterbox. “I’m positive it wouldn’t,” says Ken Warren, a political scientist at Saint Louis University.

What about a dead man’s status as a Senate candidate? Couldn’t that have been challenged? Absolutely, and maybe it should have. As Marjorie Williams (aka Mrs. Chatterbox) observed Oct. 27 in the Washington Post, the notion of a “widow’s mandate” in politics is ghoulish, anti-democratic, and seriously at odds with contemporary feminism. Given the outpouring of grief following Carnahan’s death, however, it would have been long-term (and maybe even short-term) suicide for Ashcroft to knock him off the ticket. As things stand now, Ashcroft is superbly well-positioned, should he so choose, to challenge Jean Carnahan when she comes up for re-election in two short years. Ashcroft also stands an excellent chance of being rewarded for his sainthood with a Cabinet post in the (likely) Bush administration. (He’s been mentioned in press reports as a possible attorney general and even as a possible Supreme Court nominee.) Gore, by contrast, seems unlikely to get another presidential nomination if he loses this one (and would even face an uphill–though not, Chatterbox thinks, insurmountable–battle to win the presidency of Harvard).