An undeclared but virtually certain contender for the Republican nomination, Mr Wilson prefaced his action with an "open letter" to Californians, arguing that laws against discrimination, based on a misguided "societal guilt," had backfired and were now threatening "the very foundation of the American dream".
His order affects only programmes which protect blacks and minorities within state government, and has no bearing on federal or Californian laws - though that will change if local anti-affirmative action groups succeed in forcing the issue on to the state ballot in 1996. But it highlights a theme that Mr Wilson and his Republican rivals will play to the hilt in the months ahead, and which already has the White House in contortions as Mr Clinton begins his quest for a second term.
Forced on to the defensive after the Republican takeover of Congress, the President ordered a "bottom-up" review of government affirmative action programmes last February. More than three months on, however, the exercise has been effectively shelved. Whatever it concludes, the White House reckons, can only cause trouble.
And indeed, affirmative action is the "wedge issue" of which political parties forever dream - forcing their opponents into a no-win choice that cannot but alienate one or other vital political constituency.
As Republicans know full well, a recommendation from Mr Clinton that preferences be scrapped would antagonise blacks and other traditionally pro-Democrat minority groups. But to retain them would endanger the support of middle-of-the-road voters, especially the now celebrated "Angry White Males", who last November deserted the Democrats in droves, not least because of the widespread belief that affirmative action amounted to anti- white discrimination.
Faced with such a quandary, the White House has wisely opted for silence. According to press leaks this week, the latest drafts of the promised review favours retaining most of the existing 160 federal programmes, save those covering contracts awarded by federal government, deemed little more than quotas. But Mr Clinton's spokesman retorted that his staff were still "compiling information" and that a final decision was still "a long way off".
One crucial piece of information, it is now clear, is the Supreme Court ruling expected by the end of June on the appeal of a Colorado construction company which claims it was denied government business by an affirmative action law giving financial bonuses to bids from "disadvantaged" enterprises - PC-speak for competitors whose owners or employees are from minority groups.
Widely regarded as the most important judicial pronouncement to date on the legality of affirmative action, the Court's ruling will be a precedent the White House will surely follow. But as Mr Wilson's pre-emptive strike yesterday suggests, even a verdict upholding existing laws will not still demands in Congress for their abolition.
Pushed out of the spotlight by the balanced budget debate, those pressures have lately abated. But in both Senate and House legislation is afoot to eliminate most affirmative action programmes. Should it pass, Mr Clinton would be faced by perhaps the trickiest veto decision of his presidency.Reuse content