This will be a week of maximum discomfort in Washington. First comes the Martin Luther King holiday and the promise of spectacular ranting on the civil rights issue of the moment: affirmative action. Then comes the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision and the annual, always excessive pro-life vigil on the Mall, which will be countered this year by an abortion-rights banquet featuring every one of the Democrats running for President. Politicians, except for a tiny clutch of true believers, hate these issues: too hot, too personal, too easily demagogued. Republicans flatter themselves with the appearance of simple moral clarity. Abortion is murder. Racial preferences are wrong. Democrats, by contrast, trudge through vast metaphysical swamps, tangled in clauses and becauses (A fetus isn't quite human because ... It's wrong to make racial distinctions, except that ...). Which doesn't mean that the Democrats are more thoughtful or reasonable on these issues--or that the Republicans are more straightforward. Quite the contrary.
On affirmative action, the Republicans practice what they don't preach. In his book about the Gulf War, The Commanders, Bob Woodward writes that when Dick Cheney was named Secretary of Defense by Bush the Elder, he reported to chief of staff John Sununu for marching orders: "Sununu--in public a strong opponent of racial and gender quotas--told Cheney the White House wanted 30 percent of the remaining top 42 jobs in the Defense Department to be filled by women and minorities." There was more of the same last week. Two days before the Bush Administration joined the Supreme Court plaintiffs opposing the University of Michigan's policy of racial preferences, the Republicans announced their intention to keep a "scorecard" on the hiring of black staff members. Scorecards involve numbers; numbers slouch toward quotas. At the very least, this means the G.O.P. will be judging employees by the color of their skin as well as by the content of their characters.
The irony is, the President himself seems well beyond that--and well beyond the cynical fools in the White House who leaked that Condoleezza Rice had played a "crucial role" in Bush's decision when, in fact, she hadn't. Bush has never been so crude; he rarely mentions that his two top foreign policy advisers are black. Indeed, I often saw him chide Republican audiences who asked antiblack or anti-immigrant questions during the 2000 campaign. And Bush's official position on affirmative action is arguably the right one. There are certain lines that shouldn't be crossed. Writing race into law is one of them. The President pointedly did not oppose less formal methods to improve "diversity" and access for the underprivileged: if Bush's alma mater, Yale University, can give a break to the semi-talented children of its alumni, it can certainly reach out to those who struggle up from the chaos of the poorest neighborhoods. But "outreach" takes time and effort--hence, money--and perhaps even some targeted remediation (the service academies have "prep" schools for promising soldiers and sailors who seek the challenge of an elite education--a terrific idea). The President now has the responsibility to get serious about such things.