The month George Bush took office, the Supreme Court opened the door for him to continue the Reagan administration's attack on affirmative action when it struck down the city of Richmond's set-aside program for minority contractors.

Conservatives hoped the court's ruling that Richmond had failed to show clear evidence of past discrimination would inspire Bush to mount the same broad challenge to affirmative action plans that President Ronald Reagan had launched after the court restricted employment quotas in 1984.

But no such follow-up came from the Bush Justice Department, then or since. "We have done absolutely nothing," said John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We just didn't think it was necessary, that's all."

The response is typical of the Bush administration's approach to civil rights issues. The conservative ideological crusade is over. The builders are gone and the maintenance crew is in charge.

The administration has carefully guarded much of the Reagan heritage, particularly a series of Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult for employees to win job discrimination suits. For the second year in a row, President Bush is threatening to veto a Democratic-sponsored civil rights bill that would offset those rulings.

But the fire of Reagan-era assistant attorney general for civil rights William Bradford Reynolds, whose deeply conservative agenda helped redefine the legal landscape, is largely out. "I think the present administration is not uncomfortable with the positions we were advancing, but feel they don't need to force the issue," Reynolds said.

If anything, this administration appears to have strayed from the conservative path by supporting new legal protections for the disabled and increasing enforcement of housing discrimination and voting rights laws.

Like the rest of Bush's domestic program, civil rights policy is no longer the product of an overarching theme articulated by a single voice. "It's a bit of a muddle," said Clint Bolick, who worked in the Justice Department under Reynolds and now heads the conservative Landmark Center for Civil Rights. "There is no top-down agenda.

"Some principles are commonly hewed to, but the policy really reflects individual philosophies. There are some areas of aggressive enforcement and some areas of trailblazing, some areas of a more conservative approach and then others of a search for middle ground."

For civil rights groups, the pieces add up to at least a slight improvement over Reagan, but Bush gets little credit for it. With an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, many legal experts agree that the civil rights community needs more than a slight shift merely to preserve the status quo in the critical area of job discrimination law.

The high court rejected some Reagan administration efforts to limit affirmative action. But since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy replaced Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1988, civil rights groups need the administration to act as a brake on the court.

"As long as the administration is waging war on affirmative action remedy, as they are doing with the Civil Rights Act, they are going backwards, even if they are taking a few steps to restore the civil rights machinery dismantled in the Reagan era," said William L. Taylor, vice chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

When Dunne prevails, as he has on housing discrimination and voting rights issues, the administration tends to adopt a more conciliatory approach. But a year into the job as head of the civil rights division, the soft-spoken former New York state legislator holds only a shadow of the influence exercised by Reynolds. On the most important issue in his area last year, the Civil Rights Act, Dunne sat out most of the negotiations while White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray called the shots.

Evan J. Kemp, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), seems to share Dunne's desire for more enforcement of civil rights laws, as does Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

When Gray steps into civil rights debates, as he does whenever passion moves him, the administration leans further to the right.

Last year, Gray was the administration's strongest and most influential opponent of the Civil Rights Act, with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh echoing his views and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu bowing to his legal analysis.

But the disability rights bill enacted by Congress last year shows how difficult the administration is to peg, even when the same players are involved.

A few months before the two sides parted bitterly over the Civil Rights Act, the administration, led by Gray and Thornburgh, joined civil rights groups in pushing for greatly expanded legal protections for the disabled. The disability rights act, described as the most significant expansion of civil rights law in 25 years, had an appeal that clearly crossed racial lines.

In his State of the Union speech this year, Bush tried to give the policy a more coherent shape, stressing his desire to enable individuals to compete for opportunities but avoid "unfair preferences." The administration's "civil rights agenda" now includes a few modestly funded social policy initiatives like increased parental choice in schools.

Still, in many ways, the policy is more notable for what's not in it than what is. On race-conscious measures like affirmative action or busing orders, the main message is: Don't rock the boat.

The Justice Department mounted a Reynolds-style argument of reverse discrimination last year in urging the Supreme Court to strike down a Federal Communications Commission program that granted minorities preference in the ownership of broadcast stations.

But the department relaxed its controversial effort to lift court-ordered desegregation plans, even after a Supreme Court ruling that appeared to increase the chance of success.

The department argued that Oklahoma City should be allowed to stop busing after 13 years, even if that led to renewed segregation, and the justices agreed that a lower court had imposed too hard a test for ending busing. But Dunne decided not to continue Reynolds's systematic effort to convince school boards to seek dismissal of busing orders.

The White House also quickly backed away from a ruling by Michael Williams, head of the Education Department's civil rights office, that banned scholarships for minorities. Williams's ruling that the scholarships were a form of reverse discrimination was a classic Reynolds stand, but within days Sununu ordered him to weaken it. It is now under review by Lamar Alexander, the new secretary of education.

In part, Bush is able to tone down the crusade against race-conscious remedies precisely because the Reagan administration waged the battle so fiercely. Reynolds did not win all his legal arguments on affirmative action, but in a series of about 10 cases he pushed the Supreme Court to define the law.

The administration wants to preserve three of the Supreme Court's six recent rulings on job discrimination, especially Wards Cove v. Atonio, which allowed employers greater leeway to defend their practices as legitimate. Like the Reagan administration, the White House is trying to limit what it calls "statistics" cases that challenge employment practices that have a statistically "disparate impact" on women or minorities.

The White House argues that if the suits are too easy to mount, employers will fall back on quotas and unfair preferences to protect themselves. Bush labeled last year's Civil Rights Act "a quota bill."

Bush is also resisting extending to women the ability of racial minorities to collect monetary damages for intentional job discrimination. The administration wants to allow monetary damages only for sex harassment in the workplace, with a $150,000 cap on awards.

While Gray and Thornburgh wrestle Congress over the Civil Rights Act, the administration's enforcement arm is showing a new sympathy to victims of intentional discrimination. Unlike "disparate impact" suits, intentional discrimination cases usually involve a single plaintiff, lead to less sweeping remedies and arouse less racial resentment.

"This administration seems very comfortable with dealing with the one-on-one situation and redressing an individual grievance," said Taylor. "It balks at more significant change."

Since Bush took office, both the EEOC and the Justice Department have stepped up the attack on deliberate acts of bias. The EEOC has initiated several high-profile employment bias cases, while the housing section of Justice's civil rights division has tripled its rate of filing discrimination suits, argued for a broad interpretation of certain provisions of the law and aggressively sought monetary damages.

"I would give the administration extremely good marks on fair housing," said Kerry Scanlon, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The disabled have benefited noticeably from the housing section's new muscle, according to John P. Relman, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In October, for example, the department won $86,000 in damages against a company that refused to rent apartments in Northern Virginia to recovering drug and alcohol abusers who broke their habits a year earlier.

The change stems partly from amendments passed in 1988 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that gave the Justice Department the power to sue on behalf of individual victims and prohibited discrimination against the disabled and families with children. The revised law, heralded by then-Vice President Bush, also lifted a $1,000 cap on monetary damages.

Administration officials have trouble explaining why Bush supported lifting that cap but insists on a cap for victims of job discrimination in the administration's version of a job rights bill.

"Even since the 1988 amendments, {monetary damages} are being viewed with greater disfavor across the country," Dunne said. "I guess basically we don't equate the evils from employment discrimination as so pervasive" that they require "the threat of punitive damages."

He added that housing "goes to the very heart of integrating society," while one can "always look for another job."

The most clear-cut departure from the Reagan era has been in the area of voting rights. Frank Parker, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said Reynolds's record was "atrocious." Barbara R. Arwine, executive director of the same organization, credits the Justice Department now with "a good voting rights section that's not afraid to bring cases or take courageous stands."

Last August, the department sued the state of Georgia for requiring runoff elections if no primary or general election candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Dunne described the practice as "an electoral steroid for white candidates." According to the voting experts, a victory for the department could modify electoral politics throughout the South.

In other cases, the department has challenged some at-large elections at the state and local level, charging that the practice dilutes the power of black voters.

The Bush administration has done nothing, however, to mitigate criticism of the civil rights office of the Education Department, once an important force in school desegregation and discrimination cases. Susan M. Liss, director of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, said the office "came to a halt under Reagan" and hasn't picked up since.

"Williams has put out lofty language on enforcement goals and strategies, but really nothing has come out of that office for years," Taylor said.

On another education issue, the Justice Department hinted in a recent Supreme Court brief that it might support stronger measures to desegregate black colleges, but it carefully tailored its argument to apply to the specific case of Mississippi.