WASHINGTON. — ANYONE WONDERING why Mr. Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 may like the president's own explanation, which is that the bill would impose quotas, whether its sponsors say so or not.
Any skeptic seeking a more objective reason is advised to look at public opinion trends since a clear partisan split developed over the budget and taxes.
Last week, a Hotline/KRC survey found Mr. Bush's favorable rating at 70 percent, which is well above where it has stood in other polls in the past few weeks, closer to where it was in the first glow of national support for his intervention in the Persian Gulf. That might seem reason for the White House to relax, and assume that his popularity crisis was past.
But on specifics, most of the figures had to give the president and his handlers the shivers. True, on foreign policy, 53 percent still thought he was going a good job, against 29 percent who thought not. But then came domestic policy: 55 percent graded him below average on handling the economy, as did 67 percent on deficit reduction. Eighty-three percent thought, quite accurately, that the economy is getting worse, not better.
While he won a hypothetical presidential race against some unnamed candidate by 43-36 percent, 18 percent said it depended on who was running against him. But the most threatening finding to a president and party who must take away working-class Democratic votes to win a national election was that 58 percent see Mr. Bush and the Republicans protecting the interests of the wealthy, rather than the middle class or the poor.
Yet to GOP strategists, the flip side of that question looks like opportunity rather than trouble. While 44 percent thought the Democrats look out for the middle class, even more -- 48 percent -- thought they are more concerned about the poor.
The Democrats, during the budget-tax debate, have effectively cast the president as a coddler of taxpayers in his own privileged category, while they stand up for the working man and woman. This cuts against the Republican effort, even more effective in the past decade, of courting the middle class while putting down the Democrats as the party of ''special interests,'' by which they mean women and minorities rather than corporations and millionaires.
The civil-rights bill arrived on Mr. Bush's desk just when he needed it, when he was on the defensive for insisting on tax breaks for the rich, while eagerly approving regressive excise taxes that are hardest on the poor.
No issue has been more useful to the GOP during the Reagan-Bush years than civil rights, or anti-civil rights, as leaders of the movement call it. Mr. Reagan's right-hand man and attorney general, Ed Meese, and his assistant attorney general for civil rights, Brad Reynolds, insisted that anything smacking of affirmative action meant quotas, and quotas were unfair -- and millions of voters agreed.
The White House surely noticed the election returns in Louisiana, where an ex-Klan spokesman and avowed Republican, David Duke, got 44 percent of the vote against the moderate Democrat, Sen. Bennett Johnston, even after the orthodox Republican candidate dropped out to assure Mr. Johnston of a )) majority and prevent a runoff.
Neither Mr. Bush nor his advisers are Klansmen, but they and politicians everywhere are aware that Mr. Duke did not speak in old-fashioned Klan language to achieve that public-relations victory. He made himself a national political figure by speaking in code, about equal rights for everyone, including whites. His His most effective lines were against affirmative action, which he calls reverse discrimination. That rhetoric appeals to working whites, even those who don't believe in lynching.
Mr. Bush got elected promising a kinder, gentler America. In office, he courted civil-rights leaders who had never crossed the White House threshold while Mr. Reagan and Mr. Meese were still around. By implication, he was on their side. Anyone watching had to assume that if a civil-rights bill were laid before him, he would sign it and brag about it.
But that was before his poll standings went south, before his adamant stand on taxes weakened his apparent grip on middle-class voters. Congress sent him the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 in the perfect nick of time.