WASHINGTON -- Reaction to President Clinton's speech on affirmative action has been notable in the way it has been divided. Supporters commend the president for acting on principle; Critics castigate him for being motivated by politics.
Both are correct, in that this is one of those happy circumstances for a politician in which acting on principle may also happen to be the best politics.
Clinton's staunch and reasoned defense of the policy, while acknowledging that reform is needed, puts him squarely within the tradition and principles of the old Democratic Party from which he seemed to be fleeing headlong in other recent actions. Also, it puts him at odds with the heavy thinkers of the Democratic Leadership Council who have long pressured him to re-establish his image as the "New Democrat" who won the presidency in 1992.
Amid all the praise for his speech from white and black liberals in his party and the allegations of Republican presidential hopefuls that he was merely pandering to them, a terse statement from the DLC's president, Al From, was noteworthy. Although Clinton specifically defended "set-asides" -- the practice of reserving a percentage of federal contracts for minority firms -- From chose to express the "hope" that Clinton's speech was "the first step" toward ending them.
The differences between Clinton's latest support of affirmative action and the DLC thinkers' opposition go well beyond set-asides. In a recent article in the New Democrat, the DLC's magazine, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, the organization's think tank, sharply attacked affirmative action as "a catalyst for ethnic conflict and a caldron of racial ironies."
Marshall wrote that "some of affirmative action's most ardent opponents have shelved the ideal of integration in favor of a new ideology of diversity that divides Americans into oppressors and victims, rather than uniting them around a common vision of civic equality." He called for phasing out "numerically driven preferences in government that often act as de facto quotas," including "set-asides and preferential hiring practices in public contracting and employment." He said that gains made by minorities and women in public employment make hiring preferences unnecessary, a view that Clinton flatly rejected.
If Clinton's speech helped him with liberal Democrats, it didn't do much to shore up his base with his old DLC allies, nor help restore his "New Democrat" image. Unlike some other Clinton positions, this one did not try to strike some happy medium that would offend no one. For a change, it was a posture that will encourage Democrats who have been arguing that the president must boldly stand up for what he believes in order to have any hope of re-election.
All this is not to say that there wasn't some political artfulness in the Clinton speech. In his list of four "standards of fairness" to be applied to affirmative action programs, Clinton included "no preference for people who are not qualified for any job or opportunity." But the issue is not preference for unqualified people; it is preference given on race or gender among qualified applicants.
Most whites and males against affirmative action complain that they are turned down for jobs or college admission in favor of individuals who may be qualified but are less qualified than they are.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, suggests that while Clinton probably has been helped politically in the short run in appealing to the Democratic liberal base, he has hurt himself in the long run by running against a growing public tide of opposition to affirmative action. But an Associated Press poll of 1,006 adults last week indicated a split: 48 percent saying affirmative action is less fair, 39 percent saying it's more fair.
If those numbers hold, the president may have found a situation where taking a principled position may not run major political risks after all. Much depends, however, on how effective the Republican presidential hopefuls are in convincing Americans that affirmative action is something on which to base their votes next year.