Clinton Draws Battle Lines, Affirmative-Action War Begins

President gives support for preferences, but University of California may end them

PRESIDENT Clinton declared his solid support for affirmative action this week, but the issue is far from settled.

In California, regents of the state university system were expected to vote yesterday on whether to abandon admissions based on race, gender, or religion. Overall, the state is gearing up for a 1996 referendum on whether to make all state programs race and gender neutral.

On Capitol Hill, Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (R) of Kansas says he will introduce legislation next week that would bar affirmative-action programs that use quotas, goals, set-asides, and other preferences.

But with the delivery of his long-awaited speech, Clinton has finally joined the battle. Most supporters of affirmative action - defined in a new White House report as ''any effort to expand opportunity for women and racial, ethnic and national origin minorities'' - are cheering the president.

''People were saying, 'Don't give a speech, don't give a speech,' and I think the most important thing is that he decided to be a leader,'' says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. ''He didn't have to, but he's shown some courage here.''

Clinton needs women's vote

Women's rights groups were pleased with the president's attention to their side of the equation, often ignored amid the sound and fury over racial minorities' benefits. ''Women have been buried in the political debate up to this point,'' says Kathryn Rodgers, executive director of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In fact, support from women could become an important weapon in Clinton's reelection arsenal. Many Democratic women stayed home from the polls last November, when Republicans swept the elections, and the party is looking at ways to reactivate a demographic group that accounts for more than half the electorate.

President Clinton also clearly concluded he could not afford to alienate black voters by issuing anything less than a ringing endorsement of affirmative-action. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in California for the university affirmative action debate, offered only lukewarm support for Clinton's speech. But the president's pronouncement does take some of the wind out of Mr. Jackson's sails as he contemplates his own possible run for the presidency.

The University of California vote on forgoing affirmative-action admission policies is a dramatic example of the emotions this debate is stirring. Jackson has promised to disrupt the meeting despite warnings from Republican Gov. Pete Wilson that he will be jailed.

The proposal to do away with race-based admissions by 1996 comes from a black regent who was limited in his choice of colleges because of race in the '60s, but says the policy is now outdated.

The Clinton administration's preferences policy will lean heavily on the lengthy report that he commissioned on affirmative-action issued after his speech.

The report, prepared by Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos and legal counsel Chris Edley, contains an analysis of the recent Supreme Court ruling, Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Pena, in which the court held that many federal affirmative- action programs must be reviewed using ''strict scrutiny'' to justify their necessity.

The report concluded with a draft memorandum from the White House asking heads of departments and agencies to review their affirmative-action programs in light of the Adarand decision.

New guidelines

Clinton stressed that any program must be eliminated if it does one of four things: creates a quota; allows preferences for unqualified people; spawns reverse discrimination; or continues after its purpose has been attained.

Gwen Richardson, editor of the Houston-based magazine National Minority Politics and an opponent of race-based affirmative action, argues that Clinton's instruction shows that he did equivocate on the future of affirmative action. ''He said he would support maintenance of affirmative action, but look at the four principles he would use to end programs,'' she says, suggesting that some programs run afoul of those criteria.

The problem is that the gamut of programs run by the federal government defies easy description, and the various labels - from equal opportunity to quotas - are thrown around with imprecision.

Clinton added to the confusion by introducing a new type of affirmative action, one targeting firms that operate out of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. But he was not specific about how this program would be implemented.

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