Affirmative action ruling raises stakes on the issue


WASHINGTON -- In its ruling on affirmative action, the Supreme Court once again seems to be just about where the country is on a controversial issue.

Opinion polls have been finding for months that most voters are highly critical of affirmative action programs that result in what they see as "reverse discrimination," as was the perception in the Colorado case on which the court made its 5-4 ruling.

But those same polls also have shown some reluctance to abandon the idea entirely -- a position with which the conservative majority seemed to agree with its finding that some programs might be acceptable if they passed the "strict scrutiny" standard applied to the states since 1989.

The decision was greeted predictably in political terms. It was hailed by conservatives as proof they have been right all along and damned by liberals who see "strict scrutiny" as a standard that will roll back the clock and put minorities and women at a serious economic disadvantage.

But it would be hard to argue that the ruling did not jibe with the estimate of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a conservative Connecticut Democrat, that the "whole momentum of political movement [on affirmative action] is toward skepticism."

This the second occasion in the past few years in which the Supreme Court seemed to reflect public opinion with remarkable accuracy. The same was true of the finding two years ago in a Pennsylvania case on abortion rights that upheld Roe v. Wade but said states could apply some restrictions on the right to an abortion so long as they did not place an "undue burden" on women.

The question now is whether the contending groups most deeply involved in the debate will recognize there is a new playing field and adapt to it, as has happened in the case of those debating abortion rights.

In political terms, the one certainty about the decision is that it will give the issue more prominence in the 1996 presidential race than previously believed. Candidates in both parties are going to be under obvious pressure to define what they would consider acceptable under the "strict scrutiny" standard.

Among the Republicans, there is little disagreement. All of those running for the party's nomination already have gone on record as criticizing to one degree or another the existing pattern of affirmative action laws and regulations. Indeed, one candidate -- Gov. Pete Wilson of California -- had made the issue an important underpinning of his campaign by acting to roll back such rules in his state to the extent he could do so with his authority as governor.

For President Clinton, the issue is far more sensitive. Although White House press secretary Mike McCurry said it would be "premature" to speculate on how the decision would affect the review of policy Clinton already has ordered, it clearly would not be premature to speculate that the issue will have new volatility and pertinence within the party.

Leading black Democrats have been warning the president for months that he needs to stand fast on affirmative action or face problems within a core constituency of the Democratic Party.

Activist women also have been aggressive in pointing out that affirmative action is an issue of gender as well as racial and ethnic background.

Now, faced with the prospect of a series of lower-court rulings attempting to define "strict scrutiny," these groups will be expecting the president to take the lead in stretching the standard.

The risks for Clinton are enormous, however. He won the 1992 election in large measure because he was successful in luring back to the party the so-called Reagan Democrats, meaning working-class white voters who had been alienated in the 1980s by the liberalism of such candidates as Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. And these voters are precisely the ones most likely to feel threatened by affirmative action.

Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley once observed that "the Supreme Court follows the election returns." In the case of affirmative action, it also may be fair to say that the Supreme Court may affect those returns.

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