WASHINGTON -- Nearly two years ago, when President Clinton reported that he had ordered a review of federal affirmative-action programs, he sent a shudder of apprehension through the liberal wing of his party. Many liberals were already disenchanted with his posture as a New Democrat who, they feared, was turning away from the kind of government activism on which they had cut their political eye teeth.
In the end, Mr. Clinton came down strongly for retention of the approach of combating racial, gender and ethnic discrimination by affording preferences in the hiring of qualified women and minorities. In a speech in July 1995, the president said of white males who complained of reverse discrimination in hiring that there were relatively few such cases, and that the ''vast majority of discrimination in America'' was against women and minorities.
Mr. Clinton argued that ''based on the evidence, the job [of rooting out discrimination] is not done. . . . We should reaffirm the principle of affirmative action and fix the [indefensible] practices.'' He adopted the slogan: ''Mend it, but don't end it.'' The liberals, women's and civil-rights groups breathed a sigh of relief.
Mr. Clinton also warned, as his re-election campaign approached, that ''we must not let this debate be another cheap political wedge issue.'' He had a particular reason to say so because the issue was a hot one in California, the one state that then was believed to be essential to victory for him. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was stirring the pot, with the Board of Regents of the University of California voting to end affirmative action in admissions and the governor directly moving to end the policy in state hiring and contracting.
The wedge that wasn't
The issue came to a head in the form of Proposition 209, a ballot initiative designed to kill affirmative action in public education, jobs and contracting, with Governor Wilson in the forefront. He argued, in fact, that making it a wedge issue could be a ticket to Bob Dole carrying the state.
That didn't happen. Senator Dole lost California but Prop 209 passed easily, in a vote marked by clear polarization -- white males leading its support, women and minorities strongly against it.
A day in court
Almost at once, opponents of Prop 209 went into court, arguing that the ban was unconstitutional. Next Monday, they will seek to extend the hold on enforcement through a preliminary injunction, and the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the president to join on its side.
Once again, however, the Clinton administration is treading water, saying the Justice Department needs more time to consider the legal aspects. While it seems inconceivable in light of Mr. Clinton's past opposition to Prop 209 that he would not jump in against it, the delay risks stirring up the Democratic liberals again and making the president appear indecisive.
It may be only that the government's lawyers want to be sure this is the best vehicle for making the case for continued affirmative action. One Republican congressman, Charles Canady of Florida, has already indicated he will reintroduce a bill banning affirmative action by the federal government, which could produce a battle royal in Congress next year.
Mark Rosenbaum of the California chapter of the ACLU says that if Prop 209 is allowed to stand it will constitute ''the most far-reaching denial'' in years of the right of individuals to present evidence of discrimination. State and local governments and school districts, he says, will be ''utterly disabled from developing'' cases to prove gender or race discrimination.
In any event, President Clinton, who carried California easily even as Prop 209 was passing, would have had nothing to fear politically by simply declaring that he wanted his administration to back the effort to thwart Prop 209, and disclosing the legal grounds later.
Instead he chances leaving an impression again that this nTC self-proclaimed New Democrat is less than four-square in support of affirmative action.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 12/13/96