President Barack Obama and Democrats generally have gained political ground as Republicans, especially former Sen. Rick Santorum, have pushed social and cultural issues to the forefront while most voters remain concerned with gut economic and war-and-peace issues. But that situation could change quickly with the sudden return to center stage of affirmative action as an issue after being in the background in recent years.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a major case involving race-based admissions policies at the University of Texas.
The Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that colleges and universities could not use a formal, point-based system to increase minority enrollment but could employ informal ways to increase diversity. In practical terms, that has meant that black and Latino Americans have gotten an admissions edge over Anglo and Asian American students, whose test scores and grade-point averages have often been higher. But the Texas case has reopened the issue. In the intervening years, competition for admissions has heightened and protests have been notable at institutions such as the Universities of California and Texas about discriminations allegedly being employed against qualified white and Asian American applicants.
Current cultural-issue debate, centered around abortion rights, has tended to tilt in favor of Democrats. Public opinion is split about 50-50 between pro- and anti-abortion views. But most voters have been uncomfortable with the recent high-decibel debate on the issue.
Democrats, additionally, have attempted to shift debate so as to make Republicans appear anti-contraception. Most voters, including Catholics, are OK with contraception. But Santorum recently fell into a trap when, answering a question, he granted that states probably had the legal power to outlaw contraception, if they chose. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wisely responded, to a similar question, that the subject was "silly" since no state was attempting to do so.
The issue of affirmative action, however, is an entirely different matter.
A strong majority of voters, over a number of years, have opposed the concept of affirmative action — that is, the favoritism of one group over another on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Obama and Democrats will have a hard time winning a public argument on the issue, although major media and many influential groups will tip to the affirmative-action side.
Where did affirmative action come from? Contrary to frequent representations otherwise, it did not begin in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. The whole emphasis through the Johnson presidency, and in the preceding civil-rights movement, had been to eradicate all such favoritism. The defining Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly banned discrimination for or against anyone based on race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.
The emphasis changed, however, in the Nixon presidency with a program pragmatically undertaken to fight discrimination in the construction industry and trades and without thought to its larger long-term implications. Labor Secretary George Shultz launched the so-called Philadelphia Plan whereby unions and employers in the notoriously discriminatory construction industry agreed to set aside jobs for minority, mostly black employees. The concept then spread to hiring in other industries, to awarding of public contracts, to college admissions, and to other aspects of American life.
The concept, of course, was in direct opposition to the "equal opportunity for all" philosophy underlying the Civil Rights Act. It also went against the basic precepts held by a vast majority of Americans — that is, that everyone should have an equal chance to rise on the basis of his/her effort and performance.
The legislators and people who had fought and bled for the Civil Rights Act, and the everybody-equal concept, were skeptical of affirmative action. My old boss, former Vice President Humphrey, the principal author of the act, argued against affirmative action at a national Americans for Democratic Action conference. I made the opposite case, asserting that affirmative action programs would be only temporary and a way to help formerly oppressed minorities make up lost ground getting to the starting line. But, quite soon, minority leaders found themselves on the affirmative-action side. Their constituents liked special breaks and it was easy to justify them as compensation for past discriminations.
The programs were not temporary but became embedded in both the public and private sectors, being called "reverse racism" by their most avid critics. The critics, in turn, were sometimes labeled "racists" for daring to challenge programs benefiting minorities.
Numerous lawsuits have over the years challenged one or another aspect of affirmative action, quite frequently in education. The 2003 decision, authorizing informal but not rigid steps toward diversity, carried 5-4. The numbers this time might tip 5-4 in the opposite direction.
The pending case quickly will become part of national-campaign dialogue. We should have no illusion about how ordinary citizens feel about it. The most recent polling I have seen tipped 70-30 against affirmative action and for the equal-opportunity-for-all concept. So-called Reagan Democrats in industrial (and big electoral) states are avidly against it. It is difficult to see opinion shifting that greatly over the coming weeks.
Politicians criticizing the court or attempting to label anyone "racist" will take great risk in doing so. Opponents of affirmative action will need to be just as careful that their statements do not reflect underlying discriminatory outlooks.
To put it plainly: Voters don't like discrimination. They want everyone to get an even break. But, at the same time, they don't like perceived special treatment of any group. And, whether the arguer is pro or con, they will hoot him/her down quickly if they think they're being fed political poop.
Message for officeholders and candidates: Treat the matter and voters with the seriousness they deserve.