The debate over Thomas: A Democratic trap? On Politics Today


Washington -- AMONG THE post-mortems on President Bush's appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court is the view that the creation of a court so clearly weighted with conservatives will hand the Democrats a political shooting gallery in 1992. This argumepublican creation now bent on turning the clock back on individual rights and barring any extension of them against government intrusion.

Doubtless there will be those liberal Democrats who will seize what they will see as an opportunity to make that case, which on the basis of the behavior of the court in its last term has considerable validity, even before the Thomas appointment. Thomas' hostility toward affirmative action as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the Reagan administration will only give them added ammunition.

Frustrated by their own relative silence in interrogating the previous conservative Bush nominee, David Souter, on his philosophical views when he came before the Senate for confirmation last year, these liberals may elect to lock the barn after the horse has been stolen -- that is, press Thomas on his views when it is already too late to affect the court's inexorable rightward shift.

But Democrats who take that course may well be walking into a political trap. One of the clear lessons of recent elections is that the pendulum on civil rights has swung sharply from left to right in public attitudes since the heyday of the civil rights movement. What was perceived in the 1950s and 1960s as warranted governmental corrective action against undeniable racial discrimination is more often seen today, certainly among whites, as unwarranted minority preference at the expense of the majority.

When Lyndon Johnson told Congress after John Kennedy's death that "we shall overcome," he spoke bolstered by a national consensus that racial segregation and discrimination was a blight on American society that demanded eradication. For many Americans today, that objective is seen as accomplished.

Some Democrats, recognizing this fact, want their party to soft-pedal its historic posture as the champion of minorities and emphasize issues for 1992 that will cast the party more as a champion of middle-class voters of whatever race or special-interest group. Notable in leading this approach is Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who has put himself in the forefront of the campaign for national health-care and child-care reform. These are issues much less vulnerable to the charge that they seek benefits for minorities than are activities dealing with TTC job discrimination and preference and other arenas of present-day civil rights battles.

But when the confirmation hearings on Thomas take place, the country is likely to be treated to another high-profile debate casting the Democrats as defenders of minority rights at the expense of the majority, and the Republicans as the champions of the put-upon majority. And the time is long past when that lineup can be anything but bad political news for the Democrats.

Liberal Democratic tradition calls for the faithful to fight the Thomas nomination on grounds that being black is about the only thing the nominee has in common with the man whose place on the Supreme Court he will be taking, Thurgood Marshall. But political prudence suggests that the party's chances in 1992, already dim, will be better served by Democrats acknowledging that George Bush has snookered them with his choice of Thomas and devoting their energies to making the broader appeal to voters on neglected middle-class needs, such as health care and child care.

In doing so, they will be pitching their efforts to a constituency that embraces both minority and majority voters in a way that will give them some possibility of shedding the special-interest image that has been in considerable part the party's undoing in presidential elections since the glory days of the civil rights movement.

It will be hard for many liberal Democrats to swallow the appointment of another conservative, particularly a black whom they see as a defector from the great causes that have benefited and seek to benefit blacks and other minorities. But, in the real world of practical politics, this is one windmill it may not be worth tilting against.

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