On Lee nomination, Republicans are playing right into Clinton's hand


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may not be the best politician on the field these days, but he is certainly the luckiest.

Consider, for example, the clumsiness Senate Republicans are displaying in trying to kill the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. They are following a strategy that fails the smell test on both policy and politics.

The policy argument is a familiar one. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been arguing, in effect, that Mr. Lee should not head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division because he has been too aggressively committed to affirmative action policies Mr. Hatch does not approve.

Simple answer

The answer to that one is simple enough. It is President Clinton, not President Hatch, who is making the nomination and setting the policy. If Mr. Hatch doesn't like it, he should get himself elected to the White House. That is the position presidents of both parties routinely take in cases like this and it has some obvious validity.

But Mr. Hatch and his fellow conservatives seem convinced that there is political gold to be mined in dramatizing their hostility toward affirmative action. What better way could there be than by denying an influential job to an affirmative action zealot?

The evidence suggests, however, that the attitude of Americans on affirmative action is not that simple. It is true, as opinion polls demonstrate, that the voters don't like to see well-qualified whites denied jobs or promotions in the name of affirmative action to correct the racist sins of the past.

But when the issue is explored more thoroughly, there are many Americans who favor some limited but special help for those who have been disadvantaged -- including, of course, women in the workplace as well as racial and religious minorities. That attitude was apparent in the vote in Houston last week to prevent repeal of all affirmative action there. The bottom line seems to be that Mr. Hatch and others in the Senate insisting on the hard line against affirmative action are playing largely to their own base of determined social conservatives.

Political factors

In this case, there are other political factors at play. At the crassest level, consider these questions. What is the largest growing voter group in the nation and in California, the most populous state? Answer: Asian-Americans. Who is Bill Lann Lee? Answer: A son of Chinese immigrants who has been nominated for the highest-ranking position ever offered an Asian-American.

The danger of the Republicans being perceived as anti-Asian is obvious even if, as is the case, no one who knows him believes Orrin Hatch to be acting out of racial intolerance. When any ethnic group sees one of its members being advanced for high office, the response is inevitable: Why not? It's about time.

In the case of Mr. Lee, moreover, there is no legitimate question about his credentials. At 48, he has spent his entire career working for civil rights law firms and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Thus, the complaint of Mr. Hatch and other conservatives -- including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who injected himself into the controversy the other day -- seems to be that Mr. Lee's transgression is that he has been doing what he has been paid to do.

In the past few days, the Republicans apparently have recognized, that they may be following the wrong course politically. They have shifted their line of attack to complain about Mr. Lee forcing consent decree settlements on businesses and government entities in California -- arguing, in effect, that it is not his support of affirmative action but his methods that are obnoxious to them.

But the White House also has jettisoned its usual practice of keeping nominees who are under fire hidden from public view to avoid antagonizing the senators on the committee by going over their heads to the voters. But in this case, Mr. Lee is being trotted out for just that purpose.

Merry men

In the long haul, the White House strategy probably won't work. But Messrs. Hatch and Gingrich and all their merry men are not going to be allowed to simply bury the nomination without getting the full credit for doing so. If they want to deny an Asian-American the richest opportunity ever offered by the federal government, they are going to have to do it with the lights on and the cameras running.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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