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
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
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
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. …