Conservative Ashcroft bucks the odds

September 11, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- John Ashcroft, Missouri's freshman Republican senator, is uncoy about doing what must be done to be ready to run for president. You can, he says, quit such a campaign anytime but you cannot start anytime.

So he is out and about, spending quality time with Republican primary voters and people who tell him he can have $20 million by the first quarter of 2000.

A two-term governor, he laughingly says, "Anyone who tells you that being senator is as much fun as being governor will lie to you about other things, too." A person who has wielded executive power is apt to want to do so again.

If the Christian Coalition and like-minded cultural conservatives were designing their pinup candidate, the result would look remarkably like the 55-year-old Mr. Ashcroft, the son and grandson of ministers, who begins his day with devotions in his office.

For economic conservatives, he has a clear tax proposal with a calculable cash value: an income tax deduction for payroll taxes, which he says are "the only taxation exclusively on work."

Some Missouri conservatives say Mr. Ashcroft was a depressingly orthodox governor, under whom things that should not have risen -- spending, the number of government tentacles, the morale of the public education lobby -- rose. But when he left office, as when he entered it, Missouri ranked 49th among the states in per capita tax burden.

And Missourians were content: In 1988 he won his second term with the highest percentage (64) achieved by any governor since the Civil War, and in his 1994 Senate race he carried every county.

He tartly explains his vote against the budget deal: "We had to find ways to spend money to keep from balancing the budget before the year 2002, and sure enough the Congress rose to the challenge."

An advocate of tax simplification -- his wife teaches tax law at Howard University, yet he says they cannot do their own taxes -- he disdains the budget deal because it "tweaked the system in 800 ways."

Two problems

As a potential presidential candidate he has two problems, each of which might seem, at first blush, to be an asset. One is the unvarnishable, if not quite disqualifying, fact that he is a senator. The other is the country's conservatism.

As politicians his age are apt to be, Mr. Ashcroft, who was 18 when John Kennedy was elected, is somewhat fixated on Kennedy's example, and on the 1960 Democratic nomination contest, which featured four senators -- Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Missouri's Stuart Symington -- in addition to Adlai Stevenson.

Still, sitting members of Congress are infrequently nominated (Bob Dole, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater most recently) and rarely elected (Kennedy, Harding and Garfield were the only ones).

Perhaps the public intuits that the legislative life -- rubbing the edges off issues to facilitate the building of coalitions -- is poor preparation for executive action, which sometimes should be polarizing.

A president, Mr. Ashcroft says, should be concerned with "the noble" rather than the merely "doable." However, the country's current conservatism disposes it to skepticism about the utility of government, and particularly about investing any political office, even the presidency, with the sort of semi-sacerdotal role that the pursuit of nobility suggests.

Some people who want Texas Gov. George Bush to be the Republican nominee hope that Mr. Ashcroft runs because they think he will siphon votes from two other potential candidates, Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan. But Mr. Ashcroft is close to Pat Robertson, whose national constituency might, in a nomination contest, make the senator much more than a minor player.

And suppose this brought to Mr. Ashcroft the support of a new star in the firmament of political consultants -- Ralph Reed, late of the Christian Coalition. Missouri, which began the century as the fifth most populous state, could end the century with restored weight.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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