Affirmative action crisis for Clinton

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton is speeding up his search for a compromise on affirmative action, the race and sex-based preference programmes whose future is an ever more charged issue now threatening turmoil in his Democratic party in the run-up to the 1996 campaign.

It emerged yesterday that he summoned more than 20 experts to a White House dinner earlier this week to discuss how his promised review of affirmative- action progammes - mostly dating back to the civil-rights reforms of the 1960s and early 1970s but which are under fierce attack from Republicans - should be handled.

Every sign is that Mr Clinton, who plans a national address on the issue soon, has not made up his mind. But every month increases the danger that affirmative action will turn into a gift "wedge issue" for Republicans, pitting key Democratic constituencies against each other.

At issue are laws discriminating in favour of blacks, Hispanics and women, mostly in employment and contracting. One, providing subsidies to minority- owned companies when they tender for federal public- works contracts, is being challenged in the Supreme Court; but whatever the decision, due in summer, it will not spare Mr Clinton one of the trickiest choices he will face as President.

Put simply, he has to find a way of meeting the growing public feeling that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness, without alienating his party's core constituency of black voters. At worst, a blanket removal of preferences could provoke a challenge in next year's primaries from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights leader, who recently met Mr Clinton to voice his fears.

Maintaining the status quo, however, could cost him millions of votes in the centre of the political spectrum next year, when the hottest issues are likely to be similar to those which helped Republicans to seize control of Congress in November for the first time in 40 years.

Resentment of affirmative action was a big factor in the "white male backlash" which cost Mr Clinton so dear last time. Now a proposal to abolish it is well-nigh certain to be on the 1996 ballot in California, whose 54 electoral votes he virtually has to win to stay in the White House.

The President is unlikely to go that far. He is on the record as wanting to keep some preference programmes but increasingly he talks of broader initiatives to help working people irrespective of race or gender.