PRESENTING GEORGE W. ASHCROFT

South Carolina's favorite Missourian blesses the Bush

It's too bad no one around here paid much attention last week when our very own Sen. John Ashcroft went to South Carolina to endorse GOP front-runner George W. Bush.

What fine symbolism -- and irony -- we had there.

Just 20 months ago, Ashcroft whipped Bush by a 32-15 percent margin in South Carolina's straw poll for president, setting himself momentarily apart from others on the Religious Right wing of the Republican Party. Bush, then widely suspected of the crime of political moderation, had stayed safely away from the state and an overcrowded field of candidates.

Now Ashcroft -- who's laboring tirelessly to appear kinder, gentler and less extremist back home in Missouri -- is flown in to bear witness to Bush's moralistic bonafides so that Bush may in turn appear less kind and gentle (and thus in possession of larger cojones than his father) to South Carolina's legendarily conservative Republicans.

The endorsement wasn't what you'd call big on specifics.

"I look forward to working in the United States Senate with a president not just with the legal capacity to govern but with the moral character to lead," Ashcroft said. "(Bush) will make a great president because he won't just govern America, he will lead America."

Bush responded in similar detail.

"For those of you who follow American politics, you know of the strength and character of John Ashcroft," Bush said. "He's not only a man of high principle and high character, he's a person who can get things done."

There was a reason for all these glowing generalities, and it wasn't just that politicians of all stripes write their position papers with crayons these days. In this case, had things gotten substantive, the endorser might have found it a tad difficult to explain his infatuation with the endorsee.

Ashcroft built his South Carolinian reputation as a Religious Right true believer, but in backing Bush he effectively unendorsed Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes and Orrin Hatch, all of whom are unmistakably closer to Ashcroft on the social issues he presumably holds dear. It's a good thing South Carolina Republicans aren't what one would call policy wonks.

For example, on abortion -- Ashcroft's longtime signature issue -- Bush has clung to the traditional stance of being "pro-life" except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Ashcroft, like the other "social" conservatives, has backed the American Life League approach, which is to say no abortions, not anytime, not anywhere, not for any reason.

How important has the issue been to Ashcroft? He is one of only a handful of senators to give public backing to the American Life League, and the group honored him for that last year. Back in 1998, when he was a presidential hopeful, Ashcroft was asked on CNN whether, given only one choice, he would cut taxes or end abortion.

"End abortion," he answered without hesitation.

Well, if we take Ashcroft's absolutist words absolutely, the fellow he just endorsed in South Carolina believes in murdering the unborn if a woman has been raped or has become pregnant incestuously. I don't believe that, but Ashcroft presumably does, and so do some of the candidates he passed over for Bush.

Ah, maybe it would be better to talk taxes.

Then again, two of the linchpins of Ashcroft's economic plan -- proudly touted today on his senatorial Web site -- are slashing the national debt on a firm schedule and unflaggingly protecting Social Security from being raided.

Had the senator stuck around to talk details -- and had the media been inclined to ask -- it might have been interesting to see how those top priorities square with Bush's "fiscally irresponsible" plan (his Republican opponents' words) to cut taxes by $483 billion in year one and $1.14 trillion overall. Bush's critics claim the plan would mean higher deficits and more Social Security raids.

Ashcroft undoubtedly could rationalize that Bush's fervor for tax-cutting is all that matters and that, as Bush promises, the trickle-down phenomenon (a belief in which his father once termed "voodoo economics") would result in a lower national debt and everyone living happily ever after. But I don't think he'd like to lay their two "economic plans" side by side.

On the other hand, Ashcroft and Bush were able to have a unified response to the issue du jour in South Carolina: whether to continue to fly the Confederate flag above the statehouse. Apparently neither man felt compelled to exert the "moral leadership" even to question the legitimacy of officially revering a symbol that stood for, among other things, the buying and selling of human beings like cattle.

"It is a local issue," was all the leadership Bush could muster on this one. He also didn't find it his place to criticize South Carolina state Sen. Arthur Ravenel for referring to the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Retarded People."

Should Ravenel, a former congressman and a $25 donor to Bush, be expected to apologize?

"It'd be up to the senator to do that," Bush, the moral leader, said.

Ashcroft took a similar dive on the Confederate-flag issue -- saying he wouldn't have chosen to fly one in Missouri but that he wouldn't meddle in South Carolina's business -- but in his case, that was major progress on the racial front.

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