AT HIS FIRST press conference after he was picked to be Republican National Committee chairman, William J. Bennett defended Sen. Jesse Helms' recent campaign, including a controversial television commercial that catered to anger and violence, and he called for a debate with Democrats over "affirmative action."
This issue is shaping up as conservative Republicans' choice of weapons in the Nineties. The Right has lost its two best issues of past decades. But it knows that while the tax pledge may tumble and the Evil Empire may crumble (they're only made of clay), racism is here to stay.
I wouldn't say all opponents of race-conscious laws and programs are racists. I don't think the 1990 Civil Rights Act was an un-American quota bill, but I'm willing to believe George Bush, who vetoed it, and Gary Franks, who opposed it, when they say they think it is.
For the record I think the 1990 act was anti-affirmative action. It was written to prevent employers from giving white job applicants preference over blacks on the basis of race. It couldn't be fairer.
But if I were a Democratic strategist, I wouldn't let Bennett and Bush have the choice of weapons. Purely out of expediency I'd drop civil rights programs that even hint at quotas. There are too many white voters who knee-jerk against these. They elected Helms and made the difference in Pete Wilson's victory in the California governor's race. (Senator Wilson voted to sustain the veto.)
Some black voters oppose such programs, too. An intriguing statistic from last Election Day is this: the percentage of blacks voting Republican in House of Representatives races was 22, compared with 14 percent in 1986 and 11 percent in 1982. Yes. That's right. Despite Jesse Helms, despite the Bush veto of the Civil Rights Act, blacks voted Republican at half again the rate of the last off-year election and at twice the rate of the one before that!
One reason for this is that there was a slight decline in black voting overall, probably because many Democratic candidates have moved to the center on race-related issues. Some black Democrats are non-voters because they no longer see a dime's worth of difference between the parties. Another reason is that blacks like Bush much better than they liked Ronald Reagan. Another reason is that there is a growing constituency of blacks who, having moved into the middle and well-to-do classes, have adopted the politics that go with the territory.
Some of you have been wondering since the third paragraph, "Gary Franks? Who the heck is Gary Franks?" I'll tell you. He was the Republican candidate for Congress in Connecticut's Fifth District. Running against former Rep. Toby Moffett, a liberal Democrat, he campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1990, for cutting welfare, for the death penalty. He's black in a 96-percent white district. And he won, to become the first black Republican elected to the House of Representatives in 58 years.