When Congress enacts a new civil rights bill, Sens. John Danforth, R-Mo., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., will probably get the credit. But we will always think of it as the Hill-Duke Act. Anita Hill and David Duke changed the public opinion environment in the nation in recent weeks, just enough to change the political perspectives and stakes in the debate over civil rights legislation.
President Bush vetoed the 1990 civil rights bill. He called each subsequent substitute version "a quota bill" and would not endorse any. Even if it were a quota bill in 1990 (and it was not, in our view), it certainly was no longer such by the time Senator Danforth and others had refined it and re-refined it and re-re-refined it.
But the president's political advisers calculated that the public would hate any civil rights bill labeled a "quota" bill, regardless of the truth. Some Chicken Little members of the business community preferred continued employment discrimination to even the slight possibility that the sky would fall on them in the form of law suits. These two forces kept the president in his unattractive position.
Until last week. Then Mr. Bush yielded to his own better instincts -- political and legal -- and agreed to support a bill very much like the versions he had denounced. Why? Because:
(1) Anita Hill made opposing the bill risky business because it provides for damages for women subjected to discrimination and harassment. Even women who did not believe all her testimony against Clarence Thomas had their political consciousness raised on the harassment issue. George Bush got half the women's vote in 1988. If he were to lose even a tenth of that in 1992, he would be hurt in a close election. Also, his efforts to increase his 12 percent of the black vote in 1988 to 20 percent or more -- not at all unrealistic after the Clarence Thomas nomination -- would be --ed if he had to veto another civil rights bill.
(2) Right-wing extremist David Duke reached the run-off gubernatorial election in Louisiana as a Republican blasting quotas and otherwise sounding somewhat like mainstream conservative Republicans on race-related issues. This made conservative Republican senators uncomfortable. Some of those who voted to uphold the Bush veto of the last civil rights bill told the president directly or indirectly through the Senate party leadership that they would not stay with him again if a reasonable bill was before them. They did not want to be linked to David Duke in their constituents' minds.
The differences between the president's preferred bill, the Danforth-Kennedy versions and others were never great. The compromise is very like them. The moral of this story is that there is a national consensus on preventing employment discrimination, and when politicians put national concerns above strictly partisan ones, effective preventive legislation is easily attained.