WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On the evening of November 20, the Bush administration was in the midst of its latest flip flop flap. White House counsel C. Boyden Gray had issued a directive terminating the use of ''quotas, preferences, set-asides or other similar devices, on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.'' By the next morning, the directive itself had been terminated.
While the lights burned late at the White House, the president himself was at a Bush-Quayle fund-raiser. The Washington Post's reporter interviewed one of the guests, a businessman named Joshua Smith, who claimed to have sold $90,000 worth of tickets to fellow African-Americans. The Republican ''agenda is an economic one, not a social agenda,'' Mr. Smith told the Post. He likes that.
Who is Joshua Smith? He is the founder of one of the largest black-owned companies in America. It supplies computer services, primarily to the U.S. government. Started in 1978 with $15,000 in capital, it grew by 1989 to $54 million in revenue and 1,100 employees. Key to Mr. Smith's success was the 8(a) ''set-aside'' program of the Small Business Administration, which reserves a certain percentage of government contracts for minority-owned businesses.
The 1988 Republican platform interrupts its general attacks on reverse discrimination to promise, ''We will increase, strengthen and reinvigorate minority business development efforts'' like 8(a) set-asides.
Nevertheless, Boyden Gray was absolutely right that government affirmative-action programs make a mockery of President Bush's long campaign against ''quotas'' in the 1991 Civil Rights Act. For two years Mr. Bush argued that tiny nuances of language in the bill might -- in a strong breeze on alternate Tuesdays if the moon was full -- incline private employers to practice reverse discrimination rather than risk civil-rights lawsuits. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush presides over an elaborate and often overt reverse-discrimination apparatus.
Someone at the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent me a thick pile of bureaucrap on the agency's affirmative-action machinery. One choice item is a 1989 letter to the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- Clarence Thomas -- expressing the agency's commitment to ''specific targets for the hiring and promotion of protected group members.''
A handy chart, entitled ''Affirmative Action Goals,'' lists across the top the various categories: black male, black female, etc. Down the left side are job levels, professional down to clerical. A grid then provides the numbers. For example the goal for black males at the administrative level is 14.1 percent. The goal for Asian American/Pacific Islanders of the female persuasion in clerical rank is 2.3 percent. And so on.
Most of this is mandated by the ''Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures,'' which apply to both government agencies and private organizations doing business with the government. To be sure, the guidelines declare that affirmative action ''should not . . . require the selection of persons on the basis of race, color, sex,'' etc. But anyone whose own government career or contract was at stake would be nuts not to hire and promote on exactly that basis.
Affirmative action has roots going back to 1965, but really started under President Nixon in 1969. Over the next 23 years, Republicans have controlled the White House for all but four. Virtually the entire affirmative-action apparatus consists of executive orders, not legislation. It could be revoked by any president. Yet it hasn't been, by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan Bush.
''I say again today that I support affirmative action,'' said Mr. Bush in signing the Civil Rights Act. Then what, exactly, does he oppose? Reverse discrimination? Quotas? What's the difference? Any form of official preference for minorities or women denies ''equal opportunity'' to similarly situated white males. It makes no difference, in principle or in practical effect, whether the policy is an explicit quota or some less precise form of favoritism in the selection process or even mere ''recruitment and training.'' If you wish to oppose reverse discrimination as a matter of sacred precept, fine. But you cannot hide behind some purportedly acceptable practice called affirmative action.
There is a Republican pattern of running for and winning office on the basis of appealing absolute principles, which they fail to practice once office has been achieved. No dealing with terrorists and hostage takers. Smaller government and lower taxes. Color- blindness. Democrats are left holding the unappealing, though truer, position of ''But . . . but . . . but . . . but it's more complicated than that.'' Democrats lose and Republicans then govern on the basis that it is, indeed, more complicated than that. But they still get credit in the public mind for the appealing principle.
In the case of government-sponsored reverse discrimination, this a policy that implicates Republicans at least as much as Democrats. It is a policy that George Bush could virtually abolish with the stroke of a pen. I dare him.
TRB is a column of the New Republic magazine, written by Michael Kinsley.