Washington -- YOU CANNOT be a participant or even an active observer of the 1996 campaigns without taking a stand on a central issue: what liberals euphemize as "affirmative action" to achieve equal opportunity and what conservatives dysphemize as "reverse discrimination" that undermines it.
That's because the use of government purchasing power to bring about that "fair chance" -- an egalitarian end both socially just and democratically satisfying -- illustrates the great pendulum swing taking place.
For the better part of 50 years, the essential message of Republicans who wanted to win office was "Me, too -- but not so fast."
Today, the way to tell how the pendulum has reversed direction is to listen to the message of reconstructed Democrats, including President Clinton: From tax cuts to welfare reform, loyal and necessary foot-draggers cry out "Me, too -- but not so fast."
Nowhere is this message delivered with such pain as in affirmative action. The tide of resentment is rising against the giving of racial or sexual preference to overcome past discrimination in unions, colleges and businesses, which politicians cannot ignore.
Here is how the president, along with Republicans seeking his job -- many of whom have long voted for numerical goals as evidence of non-discrimination -- should handle this issue:
1. Don't apologize for having done what was right. Anti-merit discrimination is wrong and the country was right to make it unlawful. The country was ready for a wrenching-around and decided to redress past wrongs. Good for us.
2. Point out how both parties responded to the public's moral decision. President Eisenhower's labor secretary, James Mitchell, supported by Vice President Richard Nixon, began the pressure; then Nixon's labor secretary, George Shultz, used what he called "a sledgehammer known as the Philadelphia Plan" to coerce all-white unions to admit a percentage of blacks to get federal business. Although bad short-term politics (it infuriated the construction trades, the only right-wing unions), carrying out the will of the majority was good governing.
3. Recognize that circumstances have changed and public policy must respond to the public's new judgment. The change is neither racist nor sexist nor elitist; it is rooted in the same pro-merit, anti-discrimination impulse that created affirmative action.
4. Don't claim that equal opportunity is now a fact, nor pretend that little progress has been made. The leaning-over-backward system of numerical measurement has brought us as far as it can. Now government pressure is becoming counterproductive, a breeding ground for class-sex-race warfare and an offense to individual rights. A new way has to be found to make merit the criterion for entry and advancement while helping the non-wealthy, the non-white or non-male make it.
5. Present your new way; that's why we hire presidents.
Base your plan on the rock of the new reality: to equalize opportunity, top-down coercion is past and the time for persuasion and peer pressure is now.
Federal arm-twisting has had its necessary day; if the presidency is, as FDR said, above all a place of moral authority, let a president use his pulpit to exhort us -- as individuals -- to give the democratic ideal of merit a broad construction.
When judging candidates for jobs or schooling, count in a person's struggle against adversity; give extra weight to the disadvantaged who have the character to refuse to see themselves as victims and the grit to try to scale the walls.
Cornball? The country was built by moralist cornballs. The trouble with government action is that it often results in the atrophy of individual responsibility. How do we instill a sense of moral duty in executives and union leaders? We start selling it at all levels, teaching it at home and in business schools and preaching it in houses of worship. We change the let-government-do-it culture to do-it-yourself.
As the pendulum swings, America is once again becoming a nation of individuals; and when leaders awaken our consciences, most of us do the right thing, even if not so fast.
At Eastertime and Passover, we are reminded that we are our brothers' keepers and we are expected to open our doors to the stranger among us.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.