WASHINGTON — THE POLITICS of the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court is infinitely convoluted. The outcome is likely to depend on whether civil rights or abortion rights becomes the central issue in the Senate confirmation process. Whatever chance whether black leaders are willing to oppose Thomas and thus provide a kind of cover for liberal Democrats in the Senate so they could vote against him without alienating black voters they need for their own political survival. The second is whether Thomas might be vulnerable enough on the abortion rights -- or privacy -- issue to provide a rationale for rejecting him that does not rest solely on his opposition to affirmative action.
The heart of the matter is the difference in public opinion on the two issues. Opinion polls consistently show Americans reacting against affirmative action when it is translated as involving the use of "quotas" for minorities in employment practices. And they just as consistently show a clear majority who support the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
"If the fight is waged on quotas, we lose," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "If it's waged on privacy, we win."
As a practical matter, of course, there are other elements to the equation. As is the case with any nominee to the Supreme Court, Thomas' ability to handle himself in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee could be pivotal. So could the discovery of speeches and writings that raise questions about judicial temperament and whether he already
has prejudged questions coming to the court soon.
But the critical question in the end is whether a case case can be made against Thomas that will overcome the fact he is a black nominee chosen to replace a black justice and that his views on civil rights coincide so neatly with white majority opinion. And the abortion question is the only one that seems to offer an avenue for making such a case.
On the face of it, opposing Thomas on abortion looks like locking the barn door too late when the court appears to have at least five and perhaps six votes to overturn Roe already in place. But Michelman says there still might be "a little bit, a tiny bit of hope" that, for different reasons, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter might not
be prepared to vote to reverse Roe.
But even if "the death knell" for Roe already has sounded, as she suspects, Michelman argues that Thomas is so extreme that "we have to take this on." Although President Bush surely would nominate another anti-abortion candidate if Thomas were defeated, she says, "we might get someone a little more moderate."
For liberals, however, the question is whether the slim chance of defeating the nomination is one on which it is worth breaking their picks. Democratic senators from the South, who rely on black votes for their re-election margins, are in a particularly tricky position. On the one hand, they are uneasy about opposing any black nominee, which is why they need the cover of black leadership support for their position. At the same time, however, they are equally uneasy about the possibility their opposition to Thomas might be equated with support for racial quotas; although blacks provide their margins, white working-class voters provide their bases.
That dilemma is why the White House would be more than satisfied to see the confirmation debate center on Thomas' antipathy toward affirmative action. Or, put another way, it is why Thomas' critics would like to see the focus on the privacy and abortion questions.
In the long run, the confirmation of Clarence Thomas is not likely to alter the politics of 1992 in any significant way. President Bush already has pre-empted the ground for making the case against quotas, as he will demonstrate again when he vetoes another civil rights bill later this year. And the nature of the confrontation over the abortion rights question next year will depend far more on whether the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade by next summer than on whether it does so with a majority of five or six or seven votes.
But, even if the politics is tricky, the liberals cannot afford to roll over when a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court is the issue.