By Byron York, NR's White House correspondent
"We are here this morning to announce the formation of an extraordinary and unprecedented nationwide campaign of coalitions representing over 200 national organizations to oppose the nomination of John Ashcroft to be the attorney general of the United States," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, at a news conference in Washington Tuesday.
He wasn't kidding. For the gathering, Henderson and his allies assembled representatives from nearly every liberal interest group in the country. But the public announcement was just a photo-op; the real work took place after the cameras stopped rolling, when Henderson and dozens of fellow activists held a secret meeting to plan their anti-Ashcroft campaign. From eyewitness accounts of that meeting, along with confidential documents distributed to participants, it's possible to sketch the outlines of a strategy that is indeed extraordinary - and which might make the Ashcroft confirmation the most contentious ever.
The gathering was held at the headquarters of the American Association of University Women, a tax-exempt charitable organization that bills itself as non-partisan and dedicated to advancing "education, research, and self-development for women." About 80 people packed a conference room, crowding around a large table, against the walls, and lining out the door. Among those taking part were representatives from People for the American Way, the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, Feminist Majority, the Human Rights Campaign, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers, the National Education Association, Handgun Control, the American Association of University Women, the National Black Women's Health Project, Planned Parenthood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, the Sierra Club, the American Bar Association, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Also present were staffers from leading Senate Democrats, as well as the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
According to people who were present, there was a nearly palpable sense of urgency and opportunity in the room. Several participants observed that the project was the biggest since the successful campaign to derail the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. The group took little notice of other troubled Bush nominees, even on the day that Linda Chavez withdrew her name from consideration as labor secretary-designate. Ashcroft is the big one, they said, and we've got to make this a concerted effort.
The most important issue, of course, was an assessment of votes in the Senate. Organizers passed out a confidential draft of an "Ashcroft Target List" which divided the Senate into five categories: those definitely opposed to Ashcroft, those leaning against him, the undecided, those leaning for Ashcroft, and those definitely for him. Every Democrat except two was listed as against or leaning against Ashcroft (the two Democratic undecideds were Georgia's Zell Miller and Nebraska's Ben Nelson, both newly elected). What raised the hopes of many in the room was the fact that five Republicans - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and James Jeffords of Vermont - were listed as undecided. They were said to be "in play" and will be the targets of especially intense lobbying.
But how to do it? There was a debate over whether to press for immediate confirmation hearings or wait a few weeks to allow the controversy to build. Eleanor Smeal of Feminist Majority suggested a delaying tactic that would give the groups time to gather more information and momentum, but most other participants seemed to favor earl