Affirmative action painful to Democrats



WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Party is being tied into knots by the affirmative action issue.

At the most basic level, the party's dilemma is clear-cut. On the one hand, the Democrats must recognize there is a deep-seated resentment of affirmative action among many white voters who consider it "reverse discrimination" that denies them jobs and promotions. On the other, the Democrats cannot alienate its most loyal constituency, black voters.

The potential for defections among black voters is obvious. And if it were not there anyway, it is clear in the tacit threat of Jesse Jackson to mount a presidential campaign if President Clinton were to turn his back on affirmative action.

But the political equation is not that simple. For one thing, affirmative action is important not just to minority groups but to one majority -- women. The policy has been a significant element in breaking down barriers against women in promotions as well as in filling job openings.

For the Democrats, there is an critical political question here because their candidates generally have enjoyed the benefit of disproportionate support among women voters in the last three or four cycles of presidential and congressional elections.

The public attitude is not unambiguous. It is also clear from polling data, for example, that although there may be hostility toward affirmative action among some voters, there is also a de facto national consensus against discrimination in the workplace, whether against women or members of minority groups.

There is also more acceptance of affirmative action among major employers than might be apparent to the naked eye. For some companies, the pressure of the policy makes it easier for them to do what makes good business sense anyway.

The thing that makes affirmative action particularly touchy is the high emotional content in the controversy, and that is concentrated largely on racial questions.

That was never more obvious than in the way white voters reacted in North Carolina in 1990 when Sen. Jesse Helms played the race card against a black Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt. With the election 10 days away, Gantt was clearly within range of Helms, even allowing for the likelihood that opinion polls overstate the willingness of whites to vote for black candidates.

But Helms ran a television commercial showing the hands of a putative white worker tearing up a letter telling him he had been rejected for a job because of affirmative action. The polls changed overnight, and Helms was re-elected. There was no mystery about the reason.

In fact, there was never any evidence of widespread denials of either jobs or promotions to whites because of affirmative action in North Carolina. Nor is there such evidence today on a national basis.

But there have been enough highly publicized cases so that, the polls show consistently, there is significant hostility to the policy -- enough so that the initiative now being prepared in California will be odds-on to pass if it qualifies for the ballot. History shows that when such initiatives are adopted in California, they are quickly replicated elsewhere and that is already happening in other states today.

The affirmative action issue is one that can energize the conservative Republican base and skew turnout. For the Democrats, the ultimate nightmare would be finding the California initiative on the general election ballot in 1996.

Some Democrats are talking about redefining affirmative action in a way that would be palatable to both sides. The most popular idea being tossed around is a policy that would base affirmative action on economic criteria -- that is, by providing extra help for those who have been economically disadvantaged without regard to race or gender. But no one has yet produced a set of standards that would make any sense.

The one thing that is clear is that the affirmative action issue is on the table. And another equally clear is that the whole controversy is perilous to the health of a Democratic Party already in hard times.

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