The Democrats and Clarence Thomas: Damned either way On Politics Today

Tom Wicker

August 27, 1991|By Tom Wicker

New York -- THE STAGGERING news from Moscow momentarily obscured events that ordinarily might have occupied Americans' attention, such as the new questions raised about the integrity of financial markets by the Salomon Brothers scandal; the withdrawal of anotherrence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

But the latest Wall Street disclosure only underscores again the sleazy grab-it-while-you-can economic atmosphere of the 80s, now coming into full view. And Democrats, sooner or later, will field a presidential candidate, weak or strong, and contest the 1992 election, well or poorly.

The Thomas nomination has larger implications -- and not merely that his confirmation apparently would strengthen the already existing conservative majority on the court, or that his and other justices' comparative youth would sustain that majority far into the 21st century. The impending confirmation battle in the Senate could have lasting repercussions on the Democratic Party and on the racial issues central to national politics.

Something like the coalition that defeated Robert Bork has emerged to fight Thomas, including a number of black organizations; the National Women's Law Center has just joined the lengthening list, primarily in fear of his perceived antagonism to abortion rights. But it's doubtful that even so formidable an opposition can prevail in the Thomas case.

It's hard, for one important thing, for white senators to vote against a black nominee for Thurgood Marshall's seat -- the so-called "black seat" on the court. Many blacks support Thomas, in spite of his stated views, as one who has shared much of their particular experience. Having risen from poverty in the segregated South, he is even regarded by some blacks -- and touted by many whites -- as a "role model." If he is defeated, a black "backlash" is possible, particularly if, as expected, Bush then turned to a white conservative nominee.

The single most cited reason for opposition to Thomas is his critical view of affirmative action programs, which the Bush administration has been busily branding as "quotas" and indicting the Democratic party for supporting. If Thomas loses in a Senate with a Democratic majority, it will be largely on this ground, and would give Bush a new store of ammunition for his anti-quota campaign in 1992.

The rejection of Thomas, a black opponent of quotas, by a Democratic Senate could hurt the Democrats in several ways. It could shake their vital black political support, enough to change election outcomes in some constituencies. It would add plausibility and effectiveness to Bush's expected campaign against "quotas" and the disadvantages they supposedly impose upon white workers.

Thus, ironically enough, though Thomas is black, his defeat, and the president's ensuing campaign, would further identify the Democrats as a party primarily concerned about blacks and minorities -- an identification already so strong as to be probably the major political liability Democrats take into national campaigns.

Even if the struggle is considered solely in terms of the Senate, Thomas is a more difficult target than Bork. The latter was defeated not least by the nearly universal opposition of blacks; with their new-found political strength in Southern states, they were able to influence white Southern senators to oppose a man these senators ordinarily would have supported. Southern


votes -- for instance, Howell Heflin of Alabama -- doomed that nomination.

No such black unanimity is evident in opposition to Clarence Thomas. For that reason, and because he is from Georgia and viewed as a self-made "role model," it will not be easy to swing Southern senators, or other conservative Democrats, against him. Given the nearly unanimous Republican support Bush probably can evoke, a relatively narrow confirmation vote is likely.

Even that could hurt the Democrats, if they are perceived to line up largely against Thomas -- particularly if that becomes their party line. They might well be damned if they do defeat him, and damned if they don't, as the party that opposed a role-model, black, conservative opponent of quotas. Either way, George Bush wins.

Tom Wicker writes on national affairs for the New York Times. Columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation.

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