Washington.--Does President Clinton's proposed middle-class tax cut indicate a "move to the center?" Can he go all the way, to issues tougher than taxes? It won't be easy, as readers of the Louisiana Law Review know.
There is a startling passage in the July 1994 issue, appearing in an article dealing with the fight about the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The author is C. Boyden Gray, then counsel to President Bush.
Mr. Gray tells of meeting William Coleman, distinguished Washington attorney, black Republican, former secretary of transportation and civil-rights leader: "There were private indications that a desire to codify a quota regime was the principal motivation behind the legislation. William Coleman, the bill's principal author, was quite candid with me about what he wanted. 'What I need is a generation of proportional hiring, and then we can relax these provisions,' he told me in my office."
Although ritually denied by civil-rights activists, the issue is indeed "proportionalism," a fat word for "quotas," the antonym of "merit." It is a tortuous but transcendent topic that may well haunt President Clinton as and if he seeks re-election. Voters are massively against quotas. And Mr. Clinton's record is difficult to defend.
It was not ever thus. The Democratic Leadership Council, with Bill Clinton as chairman, staged a floor fight at its Cleveland convention in May 1991 to pass this proposition:
"We believe in guaranteeing equal opportunity, and in affirmative action and developmental programs to assure that opportunities are in fact equal. But government should not mandate equal outcomes; therefore, we oppose quotas that create racial, gender or ethnic preference."
As president, Mr. Clinton changed course. His pledge of a Cabinet that "looked like America" turned into a slot system with jobs earmarked by race, ethnicity and gender. He saluted black and Hispanic quota voting districts for Congress. His assistant secretary for civil rights, Deval Patrick, described the Supreme Court's ruling against such districts as "venal," and vowed to fight "every single challenge;" a new seven-member legal team at Justice does that.
Mr. Patrick formerly worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Other key civil-rights officials also come from organizations often supporting pro-quota positions: the ACLU, the National Women's Law Center, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. To chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mr. Clinton chose the quintessential queen of the quotacrats, Mary Frances Berry.
"These appointments," says Clint Bolick, of the Institute for Justice, "mark a historical milestone: For the first time an entire // area of federal policy -- civil rights -- has been handed over wholesale to a special-interest lobby."
Now, the Institute for Justice is a conservative libertarian organization. Such a charge needs verification. What sort of policy did these activists, and the president, and his administration, actually pursue?
We now have a rough 50 percent women or minority quota for 1,000 new licenses from the Federal Communications Commission, at 60 percent below market value. The administration supported retroactive enforcement of the 1991 Civil Rights Act (rejected by the Supreme Court, 8-1). The Chevy Chase Savings & Loan was forced to approve loans for minorities at below-market rates, with grants to cover down payments. The Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to muzzle activists who opposed the siting of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. The Clinton health-care plan endorsed policies whereby minorities would get preferential opportunity to train for medical specialties, while others would more likely be tracked into general practice. And so on and on . . .
The quota issue has never surfaced frontally in national elections. It will this time. There will likely be congressional hearings on the matter. Legislation is being crafted to cut federal preferences to "protected groups," which include set-asides for Sri Lankan and Tongan immigrants. An anti-quota referendum will be on the ballot in the big March 1996 California primary.
It happened with Mr. Clinton as president and Democrats controlling Congress. It is a matter that defines the kind of nation America will be. And Mr. Clinton, and liberal Democrats, have a long way to go to get back to the center.
Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."