WASHINGTON — AFTER weeks of silence, President Clinton is emerging with a strategy on affirmative action -- but one that is politically risky.
His still-nascent approach: Redefine the issue, broaden it, and defend those broader goals.
For much of the public, affirmative action has come to mean quotas, preferences, and unfair set-asides for minorities and women. For Mr. Clinton and his people, the bywords are becoming equality, opportunity, and antidiscrimination.
But therein lies the danger. From the right, Republicans are ready to pounce on any perceived defense of unpopular preference programs and use it as a wedge issue in the 1996 campaign.
From the left, the president could alienate a significant base of Democratic voters if he were to be seen as abandoning affirmative action, a central outcome of the 1960s civil rights movement. In addition, he could lose the respect of swing voters, if only because he could be seen as lacking the backbone to stick up for his beliefs.
It is within these two bookends that the administration is now trying to operate. ''Affirmative action is not an end in itself; it is a means to a society that reflects those principles,'' said William Galston, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, at a conference Sunday. ''It is one means among many; it must be seen in the full range of what we must and can do together to realize these principles.''
Speaking to the California Democratic Party over the weekend, Clinton voiced empathy for the so-called angry white males who are feeling threatened by a changing economy. At the same time, he told the gathered supporters of affirmative action that ''we don't have to retreat from these programs,'' while warning that Democrats must be willing to give up some programs that ''don't work.''
The complexity of the issue, a senior administration official says, means the president must exert ''leadership'' in sorting through it and in explaining to the public what he is doing. A government-wide review of affirmative-action programs, which started in February, is taking longer than expected and ultimately may result in the appointment of a presidential commission to study it further, the White House now says.
The president's last-minute decision to speak out on affirmative action during his California trip reflects the issue's saliency, particularly in that state. The national wave of anti-affirmative-action sentiment began in California, where a ballot initiative could effectively end set-asides and preference programs. California is also the state with the greatest number of electoral votes, making it crucial for Clinton's reelection chances and thus heightening the issue's importance in 1996.
AS Clinton spoke on the West Coast, his deputies were also speaking out on national television and at public forums. On the question of whether to form a commission on affirmative action, Vice President Al Gore stated that there were reasons for and against naming one.
At the second annual conference of the Communitarian Network here in Washington, Mr. Galston, the White House domestic policy adviser, began with a broad enumeration of how the administration has promoted ''equality of opportunity.'' Examples included putting programs in place to immunize all children, fully funding child-nutrition programs, making the Head Start preschool program available ''to all who need it,'' and making student loans more affordable and accessible.
But on the direct topic of affirmative action, Galston turned to the military as an example of successful diversification and integration. Half a century ago, he reminded listeners, blacks were excluded from most opportunities in the military. Even 20 years ago, after the Vietnam War, the military was ''severely divided'' along racial lines. The forces consisted of an enlisted corps that was largely black and Hispanic and a largely white officer corps.
How, then, have the armed forces come to be a successful model of diversification, integration, and inclusion, as Galston put it? He enumerated several strategies:
* Aggressive recruitment to make sure the applicant pool is representative of the public as a whole, ''while maintaining not only high, but also rising standards of qualification.''
* Institution of an enforceable and meaningful policy of nondiscrimination in promotions.
* Continuous training. ''The military doesn't just assume that everyone who enters has the same level of training and makes an effort to determine on an ongoing basis who needs additional training.''
* Promotion goals. ''Not quotas, goals,'' Galston emphasized. The goal is to promote to the next rank a percentage of blacks and Hispanics not less than the percentage of the overall pool that is promoted. If the goal is not met, ''questions are asked and if the answers are satisfactory, the results of the promotion decision stand.''
* Attention to retention. Once someone is accepted, the military does what it can to make sure he or she succeeds, unlike many universities.
* Systematic attention to race relations through training courses. ''To what extent can these military policies be extended to the rest of society, and to what extent should they? I don't know,'' Galston said. But ''if it is possible to do it there, I think we ought to ask ourselves some hard practical questions as to whether it might not be possible to do it elsewhere.''