By Bill Lambrecht Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
President Bill Clinton's spirited endorsement of affirmative action programs on Wednesday triggered a full-throated political debate that will echo through the 1996 presidential election.
In a speech noteworthy for its decisiveness, Clinton asserted that preferences in government programs are a reasonable middle ground that open doors to education, employment and business to those who have experienced persistent discrimination.
"Let me be clear: Affirmative action has been good for America," Clinton said, speaking at the National Archives. "We should have a simple slogan - mend it, but don't end it."
The president said he had concluded after a four-month review of the government's affirmative action programs that they should continue as long as they help those for whom they were intended. But he said any affirmative action program would be scrapped if it:
Creates a quota.
Creates preferences for unqualified individuals.
Causes reverse discrimination.
Continues after the goal of equal opportunity is reached.
Clinton announced that he was setting up a new Community Empowerment Board, led by Vice President Al Gore, to award set-aside programs and contracts to small businesses in disadvantaged communities regardless of whether the companies are minority-owned.
Clinton's speech represented an apparent shift in thinking since earlier this year, when he promised a review of hiring preferences, contract set-asides and programs to assist women and minorities. At the time, some of his advisers worried that public perceptions about quotas and reverse discrimination threatened his quest for a second term.
Since then, aides to Clinton have met often with representatives of minority groups and prepared a 96-page review of federal programs, which was made public Wednesday. Rather than ordering a purge of affirmative action plans, Clinton surprised allies and political enemies by drawing a line in the sand for the beginning of his re-election campaign.
Clinton's speech drew denunciations from Republican presidential aspirants in a preview of the 1996 campaign.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas asserted that Clinton had chosen confusion over clarity "with an avalanche of words and fine distinctions. It is not enough to oppose quotas, as if the label is what's offensive. It is the practice of dividing Americans through any form of preferential treatment that is objectionable."
Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination, used some of Clinton's own words in his criticism. "He should have said end it, you can't mend it," Wilson said.
Even as Wilson spoke, Californians were preparing for one of the nation's first showdowns on affirmative action. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders vowed to disrupt a meeting today of the University of California regents in San Francisco that was called to discuss rolling back preference programs. …