Chicago. -- President Clinton emitted the wrong signal (as usual) when he responded to the new call for ending affirmative action. He said he would rethink the program. This is like his pre-emptive surrender on school prayer when the Republicans were not even pushing it.
Of course, affirmative action should be reassessed and improved, like any other policy. But those who claim that there is no longer a need for affirmative action do not see how useful and beneficial it has been -- despite obvious exceptions, failures and exaggerations.
Affirmative action is often misunderstood, as if it meant hiring a less-qualified woman or black rather than a better-qualified white man. When that happens, affirmative action has failed rather than been implemented.
What affirmative action means is that where candidates are roughly equal, women or members of minorities should be given an opportunity. That phase "roughly equal" is not a dodge. Most often people are roughly equal in their qualifications, not slotted clearly on a single scale of merit.
Let me give examples from the hiring field I know best. A university department wants to hire someone to teach American history. Two candidates are well qualified to teach survey courses, but one specializes also in American religion and the other in American military history.
If the department already has someone who teaches military history, it may want to hire the person who could handle religion as well. That does not mean that the other person was less qualified. He or she might even be a bit more qualified for the survey courses; but the department's needs call for preferring the candidate who can teach religious history.
With the explosive development of black studies and women's studies, a person qualified to teach in those areas is obviously in the position of the person who can teach religion. Rough equality in other ways yields to preference for the areas where a need exists.
Students who apply to law school are judged not only on the entry tests but also for other qualities -- ability or interest, for instance, in the kind of law that the university specializes in or feels a need to encourage. When cases involving women and minorities are increasing, having some women and minority members in a student body is clearly a benefit.
When minority students fail in the current programs, it is sometimes because so few of them are enrolled. They have no support group, no models, no predecessors. Roman Catholics and other immigrant groups did poorly in higher education until their numbers increased.
The president is undermining himself with his own base if he weakens on affirmative action -- not only with blacks and Hispanics, who are truly minorities, but with women. The opposition to Judge Robert Bork showed how a coalition of women and minorities can be a powerful force. Mr. Clinton, yielding to the argument that these are special interests, has not mobilized the elements of this coalition.
The Republicans did not deal with loss and failure by abandoning their own special interests, which are "special" in a far more precise way than the Democrats' clients are. Big business is after only one thing, profit. It is far more focused than women's groups or black caucuses. Yet the Republicans rode back to power in Congress by sticking to their base and building from it. President Clinton's only hope is to do likewise. But he seems far from realizing that.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.