Pol Tested

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FEBRUARY 3, 2003

Pol Tested

If you watched President Bush announce his opposition to the
University of Michigan's affirmative action program last week, you
probably came away with the impression that the president's
position is a highly unpopular one. Bush's political body language
was entirely defensive--from his speech, in which he urged greater
minority enrollment on campus; to his legal reasoning, in which he
failed to address the central question of whether diversity was a
compelling government interest; to the calculated leak that African
American foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice had helped shape
his position. Media coverage has been informed by the assumption
that opposition to affirmative action is the province of the
knuckle-dragging right. "The president's statement pleased many in
his conservative base," reported The New York Times. "Bush's
position could bolster him with his base of conservative voters,"
chimed The Washington Post, "and some aides said Bush's moderate
rhetoric put him in the middle ground with most of the American
public."Bush's opposition to racial preferences, however, is anything but a
fringe right-wing view. A new poll by Newsweek finds that 68
percent of Americans, including 56 percent of minorities, oppose
preferences for blacks and oppose preferences for other groups even
more. Other polls find the same thing. A 2001 survey by the Post,
in conjunction with Harvard and the Kaiser Family Foundation--not
exactly hotbeds of racial backlash--asked, "In order to give
minorities more opportunity, do you believe race or ethnicity should
be a factor" in job-hiring and college admissions. An astonishing
92 percent of respondents, including 86 percent of blacks and 88
percent of Hispanics, said no. The paradox of Bush's cringing
opposition to racial preferences is that, among all his contested
stances, it is the one in which he is most closely in sync with
public opinion and his critics most out of step.

In fact, Republicans have grown terrified of taking on racial
preferences just as public opposition to them has grown more
demonstrable. Upon taking control of Congress in 1995, Republicans
drew up a bill to prevent the federal government from using racial
preferences in hiring and contracting, and it was widely thought
that the issue would play a large role in the 1996 elections. But
GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, who co-sponsored the
anti-preferences bill, decided against emphasizing the issue, and
Republicans let his bill die a quiet death the following year. In
1996, though, California voters approved an initiative banning
racial preferences. In 1998, Washington--also a liberal
state--endorsed a similar proposition. And yet, despite these
public repudiations, supporters of affirmative action have grown
increasingly bold. Bill Clinton, even while supporting racial
preferences, felt it necessary to declare his intention to "mend"
them. Al Gore, by contrast, trumpeted his unequivocal support.
(When, in the third presidential debate, Bush tried to change the
subject from affirmative action to "affirmative access," Gore
replied, "I don't know what affirmative access means. I do know
what affirmative action means. I know the governor is against it,
and I know I'm for it.") And, even as Bush sought to soften his
opposition last week, Democrats bashed him unreservedly. Senator
John Kerry typically accused Bush of "using the rhetoric of
diversity as a substitute for real progress on a civil rights
agenda."

Critics of racial preferences insist that Republicans get in trouble
on affirmative action because of their skittishness. "If you act
ashamed and evasive, then it's a problem," asserts Roger Clegg of
the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity. But if defying
affirmative action were simply a matter of presentation, then
surely as skilled a politician as Bush would have found the answer.
The fact that politicians in both parties act as if affirmative
action is a political winner suggests they must know something that
doesn't show up in the opinion polls. And indeed, there are several
reasons why racial preferences survive politically despite the fact
that most voters oppose them.

For one thing, the people who care most about (and thus vote on) the
issue of racial preferences tend to support it. In particular,
preferences are popular among those who benefit from them the
most--including Hispanics, whom Bush is aggressively trying to win
over to the GOP. (The Newsweek poll, for instance, found that
minorities are about 50 percent more likely than whites to support
preferences.) Second, affirmative action has some powerful allies
who help set the agenda in the most favorable light possible. Media
coverage of racial issues tends to reflect the socially liberal
views of the coastal elite. News coverage usually casts opposition
to race preferences as an outgrowth of white backlash rather than
as a genuinely held belief in the principle of pure colorblindness,
regardless of its real-world consequences. A New York Times
headline from earlier this month captures the flavor of the news
coverage: "AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FACES A NEW WAVE OF ANGER."

Corporate America, too, has embraced affirmative action. In 1997,
conservatives in Houston won approval to place on the ballot an
initiative that read, "The city of Houston shall not discriminate
against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or
group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national
origin in the operation of public employment and public
contracting." But Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, a wealthy white
contractor, rallied the city's business elite in opposition. Lanier
successfully changed the ballot's wording to read, "Shall the
charter of the city of Houston be amended to end the use of
affirmative action for women and minorities in the operation of
city of Houston employment and contracting, including ending the
current program and similar programs in the future?" Similarly,
twenty Fortune 500 companies banded together to file an amicus
brief supporting Michigan's affirmative action program. "Amici
corporations have devoted substantial financial and human resources
to create and maintain such a [diverse] workforce, " the brief
explained. "These extensive efforts are part of the very fabric of
amici's corporate cultures, are implemented and overseen by senior
managers, and are supported at the highest levels."

The main reason, though, is that the substance of racial preferences
matters less than the symbolism. In this, the politics of
affirmative action resemble the politics of gun control. Most
actual gun measures concern egregious cases, such as assault
weapons, where support runs so wide that even gun owners support a
ban. Yet Democrats have found that even proposing such modest steps
hurts them at the polls. Even in cases where voters support the
specific regulation, it gets translated--with the help of the
National Rifle Association's (NRA) deep pockets--into a generalized
support for gun control, which rural and Southern voters in turn
interpret as a sign of disrespect for their values. A CBS News/New
York Times poll from May 2000 nicely illustrates the paradox.
Voters overwhelmingly endorsed the specific gun-control measures
favored by Al Gore: 67 percent of respondents supported an
assault-weapon ban, and 84 percent supported mandatory child-safety
locks. But, when asked more broadly, "Who do you agree with more on
the issue of gun control?" a slim majority chose Bush. Leading up
to the election, according to labor officials, union members toted
around leaflets reading, "Defend your guns, defeat Al Gore. " And,
in the same debate where he hammered Bush for waffling on
affirmative action, Gore passed up a chance to attack Bush over his
ties to the NRA. (A questioner in the audience had mentioned that
NRA First Vice President Kayne Robinson had said that, if Bush was
elected, the group would "work right out of [the Oval] Office.")
After the election, many Democrats concluded that guns had cost
them more than any issue. "We lost a number of voters who on almost
every other issue realized they'd be better off with Al Gore," Joe
Lieberman told USA Today in 2001. "They were anxious ... about what
would happen if Al was elected. " Democrats now so fear gun control
that they probably couldn't muster a majority to ban private
ownership of tactical nuclear weapons.

The same dynamic seems to apply to racial preferences. People may
disagree with them in theory. But, when a Republican criticizes
them, the specifics of the critique get lost. Because Republicans
are widely considered suspect on race--in the same way Democrats
are considered suspect on rural "values"--all that comes across is
that a conservative is attempting to dismantle civil rights laws.
Seen in this light, Bush did exactly the right thing politically in
the University of Michigan case. He kept his (popular) stand on the
policy specifics but changed the symbolism--for example, by
stressing his belief in diversity and having Rice and Colin Powell
go out to make pro-affirmative action statements--such that people
wouldn't think the administration was anti- civil rights. Cynical,
yes. But evidently that's what Americans want.

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