For many years, we have heard that Republicans use racial issues to herd white voters into their camp. This campaign should put an end to that assumption. If you read President Bush’s lips, you will seldom see the phrase “affirmative action.” When Bob Schieffer raised the issue during the third debate, the president quickly shifted to a discussion of Pell Grants and loans to small business.
True, he has sometimes opposed blatant preferences. One example is the University of Michigan point system for undergraduates, which the Supreme Court struck down last year. At the same time, the Court allowed the university’s law school to keep taking race into account, albeit in a subtler way. And the president agreed: “I applaud the Supreme Court for recognizing the value of diversity on our Nation’s campuses. Diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths.”
At a journalists’ convention in August, a reporter started to ask Bush about quotas, “with regards to your opposition to affirmative action.” The president cut in: “No, no, no, whoa, whoa. With regard to my opposition to quota systems.” In response to another question, he added: “I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities in their school.”
President Bush is hardly the only Republican who nods in this direction. During the mid-1990s, when conservatives wanted a full-scale attack on racial preferences, GOP congressional leaders derailed the effort. In Michigan and Florida, Republican officials have opposed ballot measures to ban preferences.
What accounts for this apparent change of heart?
For one thing, the shift is not as radical as it may seem. In the past, Republicans sometimes criticized affirmative action but often accommodated it. More than three decades ago, the Nixon administration carried out the Philadelphia Plan, requiring “goals and timetables” for minority hiring in Philadelphia construction unions.
Nowadays, the GOP’s allies in the business community have largely yielded to the “diversity” movement. So why fight preferences in employment when employers are on the other side? The cause doesn’t seem to help among rank-and-file voters, either. In 1996, Californians voted for Proposition 209, which banned preferences in public employment, education, and contracting. Bob Dole endorsed the measure in the hope of hitching a ride on its popularity. He lost the state by a wide margin.
Republicans generally can win with few black votes, but they worry that fighting affirmative action could stir up a large black turnout against them. They also think that the issue could hinder their progress among Latino voters.
Far from exploiting the issue, Republicans have come to fear it. When Senator Trent Lott got into trouble for praising Strom Thurmond, he made a desperate bid to save his leadership post by going on Black Entertainment Television. He proclaimed: “I am for affirmative action. And I practice it. I have had African Americans on my staff, and other minorities, but particularly African Americans, since the mid-1970s.”
Like President Bush, many Republicans embrace the “diversity” language that proponents of affirmative action have used so effectively. “Under the leadership of President Bush,” said the party’s national-convention website, “the Republican Party celebrates diversity and is strengthening its ties to ethnic communities throughout the nation.”
For Democrats, the political calculus is more complex. Public-opinion polls still show that most Americans oppose racial preferences. Accordingly, Democrats downplay the issue in high-profile speeches. Like President Bush, Senator Kerry did not utter the phrase “affirmative action” in accepting his party’s nomination for president. And like President Bush, he renounced “quotas” when the issue came up in the third debate.
Yet Democrats also crave a boost in black turnout. In 2000, get-out-the-vote efforts in black neighborhoods made a big difference in several states. So as they did four years ago, Democrats are playing up affirmative action in their messages to the black community. And, notwithstanding the GOP retreat on the issue, they still try to demonize Republicans. Speaking to a black church group recently, Senator Kerry accused President Bush of bringing us back to two Americas—”separate and unequal.” He linked the president to “forces just as divisive and destructive as Jim Crow.”
Overlooking President Bush’s endorsement of the Michigan decisions, Senator Kerry added: “It was less than a year ago that the Court—by one vote—decided the fate of affirmative action. One vote can make the difference for millions of Americans, and over the next four years the President of the United States will appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices.”
Expect such messages to get tougher. Just before the last election, Gore spoke to black audiences, mocking then-Governor Bush’s pledge to name “strict constructionists” to the courts. “I often think of the strictly constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being.” And now, Senator Kerry has enlisted Jesse Jackson as a senior adviser. Reverend Jackson will probably not counsel restraint.
Although it is not at the forefront of campaign coverage, there really is a race card. Contrary to popular wisdom, it belongs to the Democrats.
—John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.