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Losing Its Preference: Affirmative Action Fades as Issue

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 18 1996; Page A12

A year ago, the debate over affirmative action was turning bitter as Republicans in Congress and state legislatures across the country attacked the issue, which seemed certain to become a decisive question in the 1996 presidential election.

There was a proposal in Congress to eliminate all federal affirmative action programs. In California, eager volunteers quickly mustered enough signatures to put an anti-affirmative action initiative on the November ballot. And conservative Republicans were moving to strike affirmative action statutes from the books in almost two dozen states.

"Discrimination is wrong, and preferential treatment is wrong, too," then-Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said last year, as he prepared to introduce legislation to end federal affirmative action programs.

But heading into the final eight weeks of the presidential campaign – and against all expectation – the affirmative action issue has virtually fallen from view.

GOP leaders in Congress have abandoned their bill that would have rolled back most federal affirmative action programs. Outside of California, efforts to force affirmative action onto the ballot have faltered, with Florida becoming the latest casualty when a petition drive there failed last month. And virtually every state legislative proposal launched in the past year to eliminate or sharply curtail affirmative action has been unsuccessful.

Advocates on both sides of the debate say the issue has lost momentum, at least for now, for several reasons: an election-year reluctance to alienate minority and female voters; shrewd action by President Clinton to lessen his vulnerability on the issue by moving to "mend" not "end" many existing affirmative action programs; and the surprising amount of popular support it turns out those programs still enjoy.

To be sure, affirmative action continues to face unrelenting attacks in the courts and may well reemerge as Republicans look to energize their core supporters as the presidential campaign builds toward its climax. But politicians say that the current silence surrounding affirmative action also reflects the lack of unanimity on the issue even within Republican ranks, where the movement to end or roll back affirmative action was initiated.

On the stump, Dole, as the GOP presidential nominee, says very little about affirmative action, just a year after taking center stage on the issue by introducing legislation in the Senate that would have ended all federal affirmative action programs. Dole has not talked much about the issue even in campaign swings through California, where a high-profile battle is being waged over a ballot initiative to end that state's affirmative action programs. And now Dole mostly discusses the issue in terms of equal opportunity as part of "new civil rights agenda."

Many prominent Republicans, including Jack Kemp, have expressed concern that pushing for the elimination of affirmative action without offering a viable alternative is bad policy that makes the party appear hostile to minorities and women.

But after Kemp was chosen to join Dole at the top of the GOP ticket, he reversed himself and backed the party's official platform position against affirmative action in hiring and university admissions.

Dole campaign officials explained it was better for Kemp to signal he is in harmony with the Republican nominee than to have news coverage stay focused on the ticket's differences. Dole communications director John Buckley said that Kemp "will never be asked to go out and sell a message he doesn't believe in."

While pleased that Kemp has modified his position, many conservative activists, who view the elimination of affirmative action as a matter of principle, remain frustrated that the issue is not being emphasized.

"Many Republicans are very much intimidated by the politically correct brigades who will call them racist for pursuing this issue," said Michael Carvin, a Washington lawyer, former Reagan Justice Department official and an affirmative action critic. "I think they are very uncomfortable dealing with any issue involving race even when what they are arguing for is clearly popular."

The GOP's split on the issue is apparent in the battle over a California ballot initiative to bar racial and gender preferences in student admissions, contracting and public hiring. The initiative is led by a black Republican and enjoys a large, if shrinking, lead in the polls and the strong support of Gov. Pete Wilson, whose own efforts to make affirmative action a national issue fizzled with his presidential bid.

Nonetheless, other well-known Republicans, including former California governor George Deukmejian, have urged Dole to stay out of the fight, saying it will not help him politically. Others, including Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordin, have come out against the measure.

Further complicating the affirmative action issue is that some of the nation's most prominent moderate Republicans have spoken out against efforts to eliminate it. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld and Gov. John Engler of Michigan are among those who support many affirmative action programs.

"There is strong bipartisan opposition in Congress and around the nation to measures which will eliminate affirmative action programs for women and minorities," said Ralph G. Neas, counsel to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which has opposed curtailment efforts.

While affirmative action programs have come under steady attack in recent years, public opinion on the issue has proven to be malleable. One reason for that is that affirmative action is a broad term that describes a wide range of actions aimed at compensating for past or present discrimination. It covers everything from outreach and recruitment programs, to hiring goals and timetables, to special admissions programs at colleges and universities.

"The very ambiguity of the term creates some difficulty in the debate," said Terry Eastland, author of an anti-affirmative action book and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute.

Polls have found strong opposition to affirmative action when the issue is framed in terms of "racial quotas" and "racial preferences" – phrases preferred by its opponents and condemned as distortions by supporters of affirmative action. Meanwhile, many polls find solid majorities supporting affirmative action, especially when the question acknowledges that the policy should be amended or points out that affirmative action is about gender as much as it is about race.

"The reality is that a majority of the recipients of affirmative action are women," said Karen Miller, director of executive branch liaison for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "As a result, I think [Republicans] want to be cautious on how they approach the issue."

The legislation Dole introduced last year along with Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) was hardly cautious. It would have ended race- and gender-based federal affirmative action programs. At the time, the measure allowed Dole, who previously had backed affirmative action, to outflank Wilson and Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), then his main rivals for the Republican presidential nomination and both outspoken critics of affirmative action programs.

"I supported race-based preferences in the past. But over time I've realized that preferences created with best of intentions were dividing Americans instead of bringing us together," Dole said during an August appearance before the National Association of Black Journalists.

But after Dole-Canady bill was unable to win sufficient support even from Republicans, congressional leaders decided to shelve it. Instead, they said, they would focus on repealing a program that sets aside nearly $6 billion worth of federal purchases for minority firms.

"The opponents of affirmative action have decided to focus on minority contracting, specifically minority small business," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told reporters at the GOP convention that he pulled back from a wholesale attack on affirmative action because there were no good alternatives being offered.

"Frankly, that's part of why I slowed down moving the fight over affirmative action through Congress because I didn't feel that we had adequately explained the positive half, which is how we want to help people who are born into poverty or born into deprived circumstances," Gingrich said.

In the past, opposing affirmative action has been a potent Republican weapon. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) used a television ad to accuse his Democratic challenger in the 1990 Senate race, Harvey Gantt, who is black, of favoring racial quotas that deny jobs to qualified whites. The ad is credited with helping to seal Helms's victory.

The difficulty opponents are having in framing their anti-affirmative action message has for the moment left Clinton's "mend it, but don't end it" position unchallenged. That language is mirrored in the Democratic platform.

Supporters of affirmative action say Clinton's phrase captures perfectly the prevailing public sentiment on the issue, although critics say it has not heralded any substantial change. So far, the administration has suspended a huge Defense Department set-aside program and proposed revamping a wide range of other affirmative action efforts in federal purchasing.

"The status quo has largely persisted in terms of the general program," said Eastland, of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute. "For that reason, I think he remains vulnerable on the issue."

But if Clinton is vulnerable on affirmative action, it will take pressure from the Republicans to make that clear. And so far, opponents are struggling to hone their anti-affirmative action message.

"It is really a tough issue for people," said Miller, with the Heritage Foundation. "It is easy to say you are against quotas, set-asides and preferences. But coming up with a plan to replace them is a lot more difficult."

Staff writers Kevin Merida and John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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