Clinton defends 'set-asides'


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton yesterday delivered an impassioned defense of affirmative action, a move that aligned him with the liberal stalwarts of the Democratic coalition and against Republicans and moderates in his own party.

"When affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair and it works," Mr. Clinton said in a 49-minute address given in front of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives building.

"Let me be clear -- affirmative action has been good for America," he said, while announcing the results of his administration's five-month review of the issue. "Affirmative action has not always been perfect, and affirmative action should not go on forever.

"It should be changed now to take care of those things that are wrong, and it should be retired when its job is done. I am resolved that that day will come. But the evidence suggests, indeed, screams that that day has not come."

Mr. Clinton portrayed his views as being the middle ground in the debate, between Republicans who want to abolish all racial preferences and liberals who favor such preferences -- and who protested when the president said he would re-examine them.

He issued a directive instructing government agencies to alter or abolish any program that "creates a quota, creates preferences for unqualified individuals, creates reverse discrimination or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."

In addition, the president announced that he had instructed Vice President Al Gore to set up a new federal "set-aside" program that would earmark federal dollars for businesses -- even those run by whites -- that locate in distressed neighborhoods and poor rural areas. Currently, most set-asides reserve some contracts for firms owned by minorities and women.

Nevertheless, in staking out his position in favor of retaining affirmative action, the president drew a clear line between himself and the Republicans seeking his job in next year's presidential election.

"Without hesitation or ambiguity, he could have said 'yes' to individual rights and 'no' to group rights," a critical Senate

Majority Leader Bob Dole said on the Senate floor. The Kansas Republican is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I think he's done a real disservice," said Gov. Pete Wilson of California, another Republican presidential candidate who has made opposition to racial preferences a focal point of his candidacy. "He's trying to keep in place a system that will contain the virus that threatens to tribalize America and divide it. And government should not be dividing its citizens by race and gender."

In the process of pleasing liberal and Democratic activists, Mr. Clinton broke with his own party's moderates.

They are often represented by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which argues that granting preferences based on race instead of poverty foster racial resentments -- and place successful minorities under a cloud of suspicion that they got ahead for the wrong reasons.

Al From, the DLC president, seizing on Mr. Clinton's brief admission that affirmative action shouldn't last forever, chose to view the glass as half-full and issued a tepid statement of support yesterday.

But civil rights leaders, congressional Democrats and assorted affirmative action proponents were profuse in their praise.

"I saw a president take off the cloak of politics . . . and speak from his heart," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat.

"We were pleased by the president's recognition that affirmative action is a women's issue," added Kathryn J. Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Mr. Clinton's directive was issued in response to the Supreme Court's June 12 decision in a minority set-aside case. The court ruled that government may mandate such remedies only in cases where racial discrimination has been documented.

The Clinton administration chose to take the most liberal interpretation of that decision. Its directive seizes on a sentence inserted by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which contends that discrimination still exists and says that affirmative action could sometimes be used.

It was this wording that particularly pleased civil rights advocates. One of them, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, had suggested that if he were dissatisfied with Mr. Clinton's position on this issue, he might run against him for president.

But yesterday, Mr. Jackson said the president had "challenged the country to choose history over hysteria." He added that the speech "seemed to be driven by conviction, courage and hope."

Not only did Mr. Clinton's speech and directive ease his concerns, but the president at times sounded like Mr. Jackson. He borrowed one of Mr. Jackson's stock phrases -- "a moral imperative" -- to describe affirmative action. And in one of his sound bites, the president even used a Jacksonesque formulation, saying of affirmative action, "Mend it, but don't end it."

Among political professionals, what Mr. Clinton did yesterday is known as "shoring up the base." The base is the cadre of committed and ideological activists who work in the trenches for any political party. While insisting that the president's speech came from the heart, even top White House officials didn't quibble with the notion that this was what Mr. Clinton was doing.

Asked whether it will galvanize the party faithful to rally around the president, the normally circumspect George Stephanopoulos, co-author of the administration's affirmative action review, conceded: "I think that can't help but create some energy."

"Having spent 90 minutes with the president, I assure you he wants to shore up the base," added Ralph Neas, counsel to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "But he also wants to reach out."

Reaching out to find common ground has been a consistent theme of Mr. Clinton during his various speeches to the American people this year on values. But that task is difficult on this issue, which has become polarized along partisan lines.

Mr. Clinton addressed this point, and said it was ironic because affirmative action has always enjoyed bipartisan support.

Race preferences were first adopted in 1965 during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson as a way of accelerating the gains of the civil rights movement by giving certain advantages to those who had previously been victimized by legally sanctioned disadvantages.

Affirmative action was expanded by Republican President Richard M. Nixon, who foresaw a burgeoning black -- and Republican -- middle class, and expanded consistently since that time in both government and private industry.

Most prominent Republicans today maintain that the goal of government programs dealing with race ought to be to ensure equal opportunity, not guarantee equal results.

"Bill Clinton today told America reverse discrimination is fine, if it helps him get re-elected," said Republican party chief Haley Barbour. "Republicans are opposed to discrimination of any kind -- including reverse discrimination."

And Republicans, more often than Democrats, now tend to invoke the phrasing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who dreamed of an America where his children would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Mr. Clinton invoked these words himself yesterday. Citing a litany of statistics showing that blacks, women and Hispanics lag behind in income and education -- and still suffer from actual discrimination as well -- the president insisted that, Republican claims to the contrary, the nation just isn't there yet.

"There are those who say, my fellow Americans, that even good affirmative action programs are no longer needed . . . because there is no longer any systematic discrimination in our society," he said. "In deciding how to answer that, let us consider the facts."

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