By declaring that affirmative action programs are good for the country, President Clinton has drawn another line in the sand as he prepares to battle an increasingly conservative Republican Party in next year's national election. Together with his support for abortion rights and gun control, the president's strong stand on behalf of programs to overcome discrimination against minorities and women pushes social issues to the top of the political agenda.
GOP presidential candidates responded to Mr. Clinton's departure from his instinct to seek common ground by eagerly joining the fray. With the Gallop Poll indicating that Americans have turned against affirmative action by 50 to 37 percent, mainly because it is alleged to foster reverse discrimination, the president ended months of waffling by choosing the unpopular but right course. It is, however, not without political payoff. By shoring up his base among African Americans, working women and white liberals, he may have avoided a Jesse Jackson challenge from the left.
The challenge from the right is clear and unmistakable as Republicans go after the votes of "angry white males" and other citizens opposed to the concept of government-enforced advantage based on race or gender. Sen. Robert Dole, the GOP front-runner, vowed he would push legislation "to get [government] out of the race-preference business." His position has hardened since last February when he was against "radical surgery" and pointed out that difficulties do not lie in choosing between qualified and unqualified persons but in selecting between more or less qualified candidates for job or education opportunities.
No such subtleties are being heard from Sen. Phil Gramm, who plans anti-affirmative amendments to federal appropriation bills, or California Gov. Pete Wilson, who has reversed position and now is fighting group preferences as assiduously as he has exploited immigration tensions.
What gives this emotional question special force is the increasing hostility of the Supreme Court to affirmative action. In a major decision last month, the court said the federal government had gone too far in promoting race-based benefits and it set out strict criteria for federal action.
Mr. Clinton did not challenge the court. Instead, he ordered all federal agencies to review their policies and eliminate or reshape any that would impose a quota, create a preference for unqualified people, foster reverse discrimination or continue after their purposes had been fulfilled. But because the president did not take action against any specific programs, including fraud-ridden set-aside contracts for minorities, his critics scoffed that he was just indulging in words and rhetoric.
While Mr. Clinton may yet seek reconciliation, it is probably a futile hope. Neither the left nor the right really wants accommodation. The unfortunate result could be racial polarization on a national scale as elections approach.