July 20, 1995 in Nation/World

Clinton Returns To Liberal Roots

Philip J. Trounstine Knight-Ridder Newspapers

President Clinton’s unabashed defense of affirmative action as a moral imperative shores up his political base in the Democratic Party but sets him squarely against the tide of broad national opinion.

After five months of agonizing rightward drift on a host of issues, Clinton returned to his roots as a Southern liberal at the risk of further driving disgruntled suburban voters into the arms of his Republican challengers.

In the grand struggle between two of America’s most cherished values - liberty and equality - Clinton has embraced the latter, arguing that until all people enjoy equal opportunity, the nation must not assume that everyone enjoys the freedom to succeed on merit alone.

“The job of ending discrimination in this country is not over,” Clinton said.

The speech was praised by Clinton’s critics on the left. “The president set the tone for the country today,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

But Clinton’s adversaries on the right - emboldened by polls showing 60-70 percent of Americans opposed to giving preferences to women and minorities - have pledged to turn the issue against the president in November 1996.

“This is not a difficult issue: Discrimination is wrong and preferential treatment is wrong, too. Our government should unite us, not divide us,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP presidential front-runner.

California Gov. Pete Wilson’s instant response on CNN demonstrated the deep philosophical fissure dividing perceptions on race.

Affirmative action equals preferential treatment equals quotas, the GOP presidential candidate argued. “He should have said end it. You can’t mend it,” he said, calling the policy “a virus that threatens to tribalize America.”

Of course discrimination persists in America, Wilson agreed. But the cure should be vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. The nation, he said, should be “a colorblind meritocracy.”

In part this is a battle to define the terms of debate. Some polls show that Americans support certain “soft” policies - such as outreach and job training targeted at women and minorities - that fall under the heading of affirmative action.

But polling also shows strong opposition to “hard policies” such as giving preferences and setting quotas.

While Clinton rejected quotas, hiring or admitting unqualified applicants and reverse discrimination, he avoided the issue of preferential treatment - the practice of using race or gender as a distinguishing factor between otherwise qualified applicants.

“This is vintage Clinton,” said Jack Citrin, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “trying to find a position on an issue that’s divisive - not only politically but morally - and implying that there is a consensual, costless solution.”

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