Washington -- PRESIDENT BUSH won the monthly award for political chutzpah the other day when he accused the Democrats of playing "the politics of division" in the controversy over the new version of the civil rights bill. The president is, after all, the man who got elected on the back of Willie Horton less than three years ago.
There are two inferences that can be drawn from Bush's continuing hard line on the civil rights bill. The first is that as a candidate in 1992 the president will be, as he has been in the past, quite comfortable putting aside "kinder and gentler" in favor of the most shameless politics. He is, it should not be forgotten, the same man who suggested in Queens one day in 1988 that Michael Dukakis might not sympathize with the father of a police officer who had been killed by a drug dealer.
Beyond that, it is clear that the White House sees the resurgence of racial resentment among white voters as the hot button domestic issue for the next campaign. Why talk about such vexing problems as health insurance of child nutrition when you can frighten the voters with visions of blacks taking their jobs because of affirmative action?
It is also obvious that the Democrats share Bush's assessment of the sensitivity of the race issue today. That is what lies behind the extraordinary effort they have made to write a new version of the bill specifically outlawing "quotas" in hiring that Bush detected in the 1990 bill he vetoed.
The Democrats apparently have the notion that they can build a defense for themselves with the new version. They envision television spots in which the president and other Republicans could be accused of scuttling a bill that would outlaw quotas. But the Democrats are probably kidding themselves.
If the issue is distilled, as it surely will be, into a question of who supports blacks and who supports whites, the voters won't have any problem sorting them out. Such a formulation is, of course, an outrageous oversimplification of the civil rights debate, but no more so than the Bush campaign's suggestion that because Willie Horton raped a woman and stabbed a man while on a prison furlough, Dukakis was too soft to be president. That oversimplification is just why the White House all along has wanted the issue rather than the solution. That was never more apparent than in the way John Sununu, the president's chief of staff, leaned on the Business Roundtable to withdraw from negotiations with civil rights leaders that were aimed at producing a compromise bill. If business had found a bill it could accept, the fig leaf would have been stripped away from Bush's complaints about "quotas."
The stakes for the Democrats are enormous. Both opinion polls and election results demonstrate in unmistakable terms that Democratic candidates for president, governorships and Senate seats all must fight uphill battles to win the support of working-class white voters in states with large black populations in which the affirmative action issue seems germane. That has been illustrated starkly in the success of David Duke in Louisiana and, of course, the re-election of Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina last fall.
But the problem for the Democrats goes beyond the immediate impact of the race issue in the 1992 presidential campaign. The most serious hazard is that Bush will focus on the issue enough to make it the central domestic concern while Democrats ineffectually struggle to turn the voters' attention to education or health care. The electorate will once again be treated to a campaign about "values" rather than about ability or policies or "the vision thing."
More to the point, the voters will be encouraged -- as they have been by the tone of the debate over the bill so far -- to become polarized on the race question. For eight years President Ronald Reagan sent a message from the White House that being opposed to affirmative action was entirely justified. Now Bush is sending the same message.
Deriding the new Democratic version of the bill, the president used a characteristically elegant metaphor. "You can't put a sign on a pig and call it a horse," he told the West Point graduating class. The same could be said of his attempt to blame the Democrats for "the politics of division."