WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's spirited defense of affirmative action will do nothing to take the volatile issue out of the 1996 presidential election campaign.
But in at least two respects it has strengthened his own position in dealing with the issue. The president has reminded liberal Democrats that, whatever their complaints about him, he shares one of their most important concerns. And he has shown the electorate at large that he is capable of confronting a controversial question in the most direct way.
Most Americans won't see the 49-minute speech that was televised live only by Cable News Network, so they will miss his carefully reasoned argument against those who exploit concerns about economic problems to enlist support for their case against affirmative action. "Affirmative action didn't cause the problems," said Clinton. "Getting rid of affirmative action won't solve them."
But they will see sound bites of Clinton telling an audience at the National Archives: "Let me be clear. Affirmative action has been good for America."
The president paid some predictable attention to the complaints about abuses of affirmative action, conceding that there were places the program needed change and tighter administration. But he was repeatedly and conspicuously unambiguous about where he stands.
"When affirmative action is done right," he said at one point, "it is flexible, it is fair and it works."
A few moments later he added: "The law still requires fairness to everyone. We are determined to see that is exactly what the law delivers."
Clinton finessed the complex issues raised by the recent Supreme Court decision that appears to have put many of the existing affirmative action programs in jeopardy. But the speech was a political document, not a legal brief, and as such attacked problems that could make his re-election campaign next year more difficult.
Liberal Democrats -- and black political leaders in particular -- had been uneasy about Clinton's intentions since he announced last spring, in an obvious reaction to pressure from conservative Republicans, that he had ordered a review of federal affirmative action programs. The fear among the liberals was that he might be trying to back away from the Democratic Party's commitment on the question.
And those concerns have been heightened by Clinton's policy on other issues -- most notably his willingness to offer a budget plan that would compete with Republican plans by promising a balanced budget in 10 years. The question had become whether he was willing to carry this appeal to conservative voters to the point of abandoning a policy so highly prized by his party's most loyal constituency. Now the answer is clear that he is not.
A second problem is the image the president has acquired with voters at large as a leader whose views and priorities shift with the political winds. Although many of those voters, perhaps a majority, don't share Clinton's view on affirmative action, they have been shown -- at the least -- that there are issues on which he is willing to stake out a position and take the consequences.
Nor is there any doubt there will be consequences. Clinton had no sooner finished speaking than Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who recently ordered state affirmative action programs scuttled, appeared on CNN accusing the president of doing a "real disservice" by defending the policy.
And Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination next year, quickly announced that he would propose legislation "to get the federal government out of the group-preference business."
The political calculus of the affirmative action issue is complex. The policy is most important symbolically to minority groups, but women in the workplace also have benefited from affirmative action increasingly over the past 20 years. And to win a second term, Clinton needs a substantially larger and more supportive turnout of working women, as well as of minorities, than was the case in the 1994 midterm elections.
On the other hand, the white males considered most hostile to what they see as "reverse discrimination" growing out of affirmative action are also the voters generally most hostile to Clinton on many issues. But this time at least, Clinton didn't try to paper over the differences.