Clinton defends 'set-asides'

July 20, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton yesterday delivered an impassioned defense of affirmative action, a move that aligned him with the liberal stalwarts of the Democratic coalition and against Republicans and moderates in his own party.

"When affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair and it works," Mr. Clinton said in a 49-minute address given in front of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives building.

"Let me be clear -- affirmative action has been good for America," he said, while announcing the results of his administration's five-month review of the issue. "Affirmative action has not always been perfect, and affirmative action should not go on forever.

"It should be changed now to take care of those things that are wrong, and it should be retired when its job is done. I am resolved that that day will come. But the evidence suggests, indeed, screams that that day has not come."

Mr. Clinton portrayed his views as being the middle ground in the debate, between Republicans who want to abolish all racial preferences and liberals who favor such preferences -- and who protested when the president said he would re-examine them.

He issued a directive instructing government agencies to alter or abolish any program that "creates a quota, creates preferences for unqualified individuals, creates reverse discrimination or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved."

In addition, the president announced that he had instructed Vice President Al Gore to set up a new federal "set-aside" program that would earmark federal dollars for businesses -- even those run by whites -- that locate in distressed neighborhoods and poor rural areas. Currently, most set-asides reserve some contracts for firms owned by minorities and women.

Nevertheless, in staking out his position in favor of retaining affirmative action, the president drew a clear line between himself and the Republicans seeking his job in next year's presidential election.

"Without hesitation or ambiguity, he could have said 'yes' to individual rights and 'no' to group rights," a critical Senate

Majority Leader Bob Dole said on the Senate floor. The Kansas Republican is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I think he's done a real disservice," said Gov. Pete Wilson of California, another Republican presidential candidate who has made opposition to racial preferences a focal point of his candidacy. "He's trying to keep in place a system that will contain the virus that threatens to tribalize America and divide it. And government should not be dividing its citizens by race and gender."

In the process of pleasing liberal and Democratic activists, Mr. Clinton broke with his own party's moderates.

They are often represented by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which argues that granting preferences based on race instead of poverty foster racial resentments -- and place successful minorities under a cloud of suspicion that they got ahead for the wrong reasons.

Al From, the DLC president, seizing on Mr. Clinton's brief admission that affirmative action shouldn't last forever, chose to view the glass as half-full and issued a tepid statement of support yesterday.

But civil rights leaders, congressional Democrats and assorted affirmative action proponents were profuse in their praise.

"I saw a president take off the cloak of politics . . . and speak from his heart," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat.

"We were pleased by the president's recognition that affirmative action is a women's issue," added Kathryn J. Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Mr. Clinton's directive was issued in response to the Supreme Court's June 12 decision in a minority set-aside case. The court ruled that government may mandate such remedies only in cases where racial discrimination has been documented.

The Clinton administration chose to take the most liberal interpretation of that decision. Its directive seizes on a sentence inserted by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which contends that discrimination still exists and says that affirmative action could sometimes be used.

It was this wording that particularly pleased civil rights advocates. One of them, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, had suggested that if he were dissatisfied with Mr. Clinton's position on this issue, he might run against him for president.

But yesterday, Mr. Jackson said the president had "challenged the country to choose history over hysteria." He added that the speech "seemed to be driven by conviction, courage and hope."

Not only did Mr. Clinton's speech and directive ease his concerns, but the president at times sounded like Mr. Jackson. He borrowed one of Mr. Jackson's stock phrases -- "a moral imperative" -- to describe affirmative action. And in one of his sound bites, the president even used a Jacksonesque formulation, saying of affirmative action, "Mend it, but don't end it."

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