The political fallout from the civil rights bill On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 01, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — THE COMPROMISE civil rights bill is not likely to have a direct impact on very many minority workers. The seven Supreme Court decisions it overturns dealt with situations that are relatively uncommon in the workplace. And the majority of big employer already follow hiring and promotion practices that, if not free from racial bias, are enlightened enough to prevent them from being constantly embroiled in litigation.

But the political reverberations of the bill are likely to be felt all through the campaign of 1992 and perhaps for several elections beyond.

On the face of it, the Democrats have dodged a bullet. They have managed to see enactment of a civil rights bill, whatever its flaws, without becoming the sole proprietors and thus subject to haranguing from President Bush and other Republicans accusing them of fostering "quotas" and "reverse discrimination." Only five hard-line Republican conservatives voted against the compromise in the Senate, and only one of them, Dan Coats of Indiana, has a substantial population of black voters in his state.

But the Democrats would be kidding themselves if they imagine the race issue has been neutralized for the next campaign or, for that matter, for the foreseeable future. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see President Bush describing himself next year as the man who saved the nation from a "quota bill" by threatening his veto until he got this ostensibly sanitized final version.

The politics of Bush's action are convoluted. For months he seemed far more determined to have the issue to exploit in 1992 than the legislation. Toward that end, he found "quotas" in several versions of the bill not appreciably different from the one he finally swallowed. The difference may have been that the timing was wrong for him to hang tough. David Duke had just burst onto the national stage again by qualifying for the gubernatorial runoff in Louisiana as a Republican using, perhaps somewhat less subtly, the same sensitivity to "reverse discrimination" that both Bush and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, have been opposing all along. The time was hardly auspicious for a veto Duke could embrace.

Bush is paying some political price within his own party. Among its most conservative elements, he is being pilloried for caving in to the Democrats and moderates within his own party, which in fact is just what he did. It is the same accusation they made against him when he reversed himself and went along with a tax increase a year ago.

The result is likely to be new gestures by the president to firm up his base on the right. Some Republicans now say, for example, that there is a much-reduced chance of a compromise on the "gag rule" forbidding federally funded clinics from offering advice on abortion. Coming on the heels of his reversal on racial quotas, that could be too much for the rightists.

Some of Bush's advisers in the White House, none of them with long histories of close rapport with black Americans, may imagine that the civil rights agreement, coupled with the choice of a black man for the Supreme Court, may give Bush an opening to black voters in the 1992 election.

But anything better than 12 to 15 percent of the black vote, about what he received against Michael Dukakis in 1988, would be a surprise despite polls now showing higher black support for the president. It shouldn't be forgotten that Reagan, who won less than 10 percent of the black vote in two presidential elections, sometimes showed more strength than that in polls taken in non-election times.

Political professionals in both parties agree that black voters these days are far more motivated by their economic circumstances than legislation or appointments. And blacks, as usual, have been hit harder by the recession than any other minority in the country. It is hard to imagine a Democratic nominee unable to cash in on this distress.

The bottom line is that the Democrats have avoided the trap of being solely identified as the champions of blacks, an image realistic Democrats recognize is poison these days. But the course Bush follows on the race issue next year is likely to depend far less on the civil rights bill than on what happens in Louisiana Nov. 16. Politics is an imitative business, and if David Duke succeeds by playing the race card heavily, some of his fellow Republicans unquestionably will follow the same course.

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