In a remarkable sign of changing racial politics, President Clinton hinted Friday that he may discard some federal affirmative-action programs after a full White House review of the dozens of such programs now in force. Faced with a rising national debate on affirmative action, Clinton declared that it is time to find out which programs work because "we shouldn't be defending things we can't defend." The wholesale review will ask: "Do they work? Are they fair?"
But Clinton insisted "it's not true that I'm backing off" the commitment to affirmative action that has been all but obligatory for top Democratic leaders. In a press conference at the end of a state visit to Canada, he asserted that minority preference programs have helped the disadvantaged.
While he wants a "national conversation" on the topic, he said, he is going to "try to keep this from being a cheap, political, emotional wedge issue." Clinton said that the review was ordered after "months" of conversations about the subject.
The President's directive came at a time when some allies have been warning Clinton that the issue may become a weapon that Republicans could use to turn potential Democratic voters against him.
Even as Clinton in recent weeks has sought to strengthen his appeal to traditional liberal voters, increasing ferment over the issue has threatened to alienate white male voters, a group that the White House desperately wants on its side. Clinton may be particularly vulnerable in vote-rich California, where an initiative to eliminate government preference programs has given special visibility to the issue.
And some well-known Democrats--including Susan Estrich, the campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis--have urged the party to modify its historic position on the issue. But even some allies have despaired over the politics of the issue because of the difficulty for top Democrats in moving away from what has been a matter of core philosophy.
Clinton told House Democrats this week that he wants to foil Republican efforts to curb affirmative action through a strategy of defending worthwhile programs, while arguing for modification of those that do not work.
On Friday, as proof of the value of affirmative action, Clinton pointed to the military--an entity that most Americans probably do not associate with minority preference programs. Clinton said that the armed services offer the "best example of all" because of the way its egalitarian structure has allowed the disadvantaged to rise.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said in Washington Friday that, while a "vast majority" of House Democrats agree with Clinton's move, a smaller number of black and Latino members fear that it could mark a "dangerous throwback" on civil rights.
But Matsui said that Clinton's call for a candid discussion is essential, because "this has been off-limits--you couldn't even talk about abuses."
One area of abuse, he said, is in Federal Communications Commission rules that have given special tax breaks to companies which sell broadcast properties to minority-owned concerns. In one such proposed deal, the entertainment giant Viacom stands to get a $440-million to $660-million tax break and a minority broadcaster stands to earn a $5-million profit for his involvement over two years.
The House recently voted to strike down those rules.
Last week, the Congressional Research Service released a report citing 160 examples of federal programs or regulations that encourage or require a "preference to individuals on the basis of race, sex, national origin or ethnic background."
The report was prepared for Dole, who in December had said that he wanted to undertake a full-scale review of federal affirmative action.
In a few instances, Congress authorized agencies to grant preferences to minorities, but most affirmative actions have stemmed from presidential orders or other Administration regulations, the report said. In general, the actions were intended to combat discrimination in employment.
In 1978, Congress went a step further and told agencies that they should "set aside" at least some contract money for minorities.
The Small Business Act was amended to specify that at least 5% of the contract funds in 18 major agencies should be awarded to businesses headed by "socially and economically disadvantaged" individuals. The act in turn said that "blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Pacific Americans" were presumed to be disadvantaged.
But this program, a pillar of the government's affirmative action structure, is being challenged in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. House Republicans have said that they plan hearings on the "set-aside" programs, possibly as a prelude to eliminating the preferences.
In moving to shift his position on affirmative action, Clinton seems to be following a pattern.
In the face of GOP crusades on such issues as the balanced-budget amendment and regulatory reform, Clinton has avoided standing directly in the way of the political tides. But while seeming to embrace part of the opposition's goals, he has drawn sharp distinctions with them in ways that tended to position him in the political center and his GOP foes at the extreme.
Clinton has thus declared himself in favor of a balanced budget but insisted that he must oppose the GOP-backed initiative for a constitutional amendment that he has said would jeopardize government help for those who need it. On regulatory reform, he has acknowledged the need for streamlining and ordered a search for unnecessary red tape. Yet he has opposed an across-the-board freeze on new regulations because of its possible threat to protections for the environment and health, among other areas.
Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, said that this approach is a "reasonable strategy" that is helped when GOP leaders begin to sound shrill and extreme on issues. But it works, he said, only if voters do not think that Clinton is simply trying to straddle an issue.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a possible Democratic presidential challenger, suggested Friday that Clinton would be better served using his time defending affirmative action rather than reviewing it.
"People in the White House are reviewing polls, not principles," he said.