Clinton lacks toughness to be kinder and gentler


June 08, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Women supported Bill Clinton in the 1992 general electio more than men did. Blacks supported Mr. Clinton more than whites did.

"Then there is a compounding effect," says David Bositis, a political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "It turns out Clinton's most loyal support [was from] black women. One out of every 10 votes cast for Clinton in that election was cast by a black woman."

Mr. Bositis notes that 1992 was a historic election for blacks and women, who hit the polls in record numbers and provided the margin of victory for Mr. Clinton in several key states. Even Maryland, which gave him his greatest margin of victory outside of Arkansas, might have landed in the Bush camp except for a massive turnout of black voters in Baltimore and the metropolitan counties.

Nationally, Mr. Clinton won 83 percent of the black vote, but managed only a 40 to 39 percent split of the white vote with Mr. Bush. The other whites voted for Ross Perot.

"The fact is," says Mr. Bositis, "if white men had had their choice during the election, Mr. Clinton would not have won."

Thus, when Mr. Clinton dropped his nomination of Lani Guinier -- a black woman -- to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, he did not commit an act of political cowardice, as some commentators have charged.

He committed an act of political knavery.

With one fell swoop last week, Mr. Clinton betrayed his most loyal constituents -- black women -- in an attempt to woo the group that like him least -- white men.

First, he treated his own nominee with singular disrespect. Ms. Guinier had pleaded for a chance to defend her record before Congress, an opportunity afforded male nominees who also were unpopular, such as Judge Robert Bork and Judge Clarence Thomas. But Mr. Clinton denied her that chance.

Then, he compounded this by refusing even to stand up to her critics. The president complained on the one hand of a "campaign of right-wing distortion and vilification" but conceded the other that "I really don't think what's in her articles matches what I stand for."

And why did the president back down?

He backed down over the worst possible issue: quotas, the bugaboo of frightened white males.

In a number of law journal articles, Ms. Guinier has argued in favor of certain alternative voting mechanisms designed to offset the power of an entrenched majority. For instance, she has said that some of the constitutional provisions to protect minority rights now being debated in South Africa could apply in jurisdictions here. Scholars have noted that there is nothing new, or especially radical, in these ideas. Indeed, the Reagan and Bush justice departments resorted to a number of them.

But her nomination became imperiled when conservatives raised the dreaded word, "quotas."

If there was any issue on which blacks -- Mr. Clinton's most loyal constituents in 1992 -- needed his support, it was this one.

The quota issue plays into white fears that every step forward for minorities means a step backward for whites. It is a fear that cuts particularly deep in white men, who, in a time of layoffs and down-sizing, see women, blacks, and other minorities moving into professions that had previously been an exclusive domain.

Mr. Clinton's predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, stoked those fears to their political advantage. In 1992, blacks went to the polls in record numbers in the hope that Mr. Clinton would set a kinder, gentler tone for the country.

He got off to a fairly OK start by declaring that diversity would be an objective when he appointed his Cabinet, though this set off a howl of protest and charges of "quotas."

In the end, he appointed three women, four blacks and two Hispanics to his 14-member Cabinet, a lineup only marginally better than those of his predecessors.

Then he stumbled badly in the Guinier case by backing off when his constituents most needed him to stand tall.

It takes a tough man to be kinder and gentler in these days and times. So far, Mr. Clinton hasn't shown that kind of toughness.

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