WASHINGTON — Washington. Somehow, Democrats have managed to mingle their fortunes with both ''liberal activists'' and ''big businessmen.''
Civil-rights lobbyists tried to work out arrangements with the Business Roundtable on a proposal to overturn recent Supreme Court decisions on hiring policy. (Democrats call it a ''civil-rights bill.'' Republicans call it a ''quota bill.'') But then other business groups, and ultimately the White House, said that the Business Roundtable negotiators weren't speaking for anyone but themselves.
The role of big business in this internal politicking reveals part of what is wrong with the bill.
American businessmen -- and I generalize here -- are honorable, entrepreneurial, intelligent, hard-working -- and gutless. Our corporate tigers want to avoid confrontation, lawsuits, bad publicity or boycotts. When confronted, they tend to give away the store, or more accurately, give away someone else's store, in this case in the form of de facto preferential hiring policies. After all, it will not be corporate executives who will suffer from reverse discrimination that can come from proportional hiring; it is the workaday people in offices and on the shop floor.
It is just this process that leads many opponents of the Democratic bill to say that it will lead to quotas. Facing demands for hiring by the numbers, businessmen will fold, not fight.
The issue has become politically charged, and transcendent, because it will serve as a symbolic pointer toward a great XTC decision that Americans are going to have to make soon. The issue is proportionalism vs. merit, demography vs. ability.
When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, almost 75 percent of minorities were blacks. The bill properly ruled out proportionalism, but it was later argued that due to the authentically tragic history of blacks in America, there should be some bending over backward -- for a while.
Almost three decades have passed. Because of recent immigration flows, blacks are now somewhat less than 50 percent of the minority population. Proportionalism today has to deal not only with blacks, but Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, Caribbean and African blacks, and perhaps, soon, a new wave of East Europeans and Soviet Jews. Also, of course, women.
That can't work. It doesn't work. A growing body of opinion maintains that proportionalism has been hurting blacks and other minorities. It induces self-doubt; it reinforces the bigot's idea that minorities can't compete.
Public-opinion surveys and recent elections (in California and North Carolina) have shown that proportionalism is massively unpopular with voters. It is an issue that has inflamed college campuses. It is setting race against race.
Some Democrats -- sensing political calamity, or getting wiser, or both -- are backing off their earlier support for the bill.
The best policy now is neither the Democratic proposal nor the weak-kneed Republican compromise. It is time to look afresh at the court's decision. Just imagine! Those nasty justices said that businesses can't discriminate, but should be able to hire people on the basis of merit.
A proposal now being circulated by Sen. Slade Gorton, R.-Wash., adds a few bells and whistles, but on the big stuff says stick with the court's decision. That would be wise. That would also be the result if Congress did nothing, which is often a good idea.
Ben Wattenberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation,'' published by The Free Press.