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Take a Stand in Michigan

Republicans have a habit of becoming tongue-tied on affirmative action. President Bush has a chance to speak up clearly for conservative principles. He should take it.

11:00 PM, Jan 14, 2003 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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THIS THURSDAY, January 16, is the deadline for the Bush administration to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the University of Michigan race-preference cases currently before the Supreme Court. The media and Beltway conservatives have speculated a great deal recently about what position (if any) the Bush Justice Department will take. (Some background: Terry Eastland recently wrote an excellent editorial summarizing the Michigan program, as well as the administration's options, and offering The Weekly Standard's opinion; Linda Chavez also urged Bush not to "go wobbly" in a fine op-ed in last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.)

As a Michigan alumnus who was still on campus when these cases originated, I'm more anxious than most about Bush's decision. The president has long been reluctant to stake out a clear position on racial preferences, but that merely makes him normal among GOP politicians. Consider, for example, our new Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, who was asked by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" last Sunday what the administration should do:

RUSSERT: Should the administration file a brief supporting the University of Michigan's affirmative-action efforts to admit minority students?

SEN. FRIST: You know, that's--the decision has to be made by the administration. Historically, I think administrations have been active on issues surrounding affirmative action. It's a decision they have to make. I hope that the administration doesn't run from particular issues as well. Republicans and Republican principles are sound, they are solid. You're not going to see a lot of change in the policies themselves. Why? Because we care about equal opportunity. We care about affirmative action if you define affirmative action as we did in the 1960 Civil Rights Act. If you come to strict quotas today in terms of where the quotas are, most Republicans, including myself, [believe] that these strict quotas result in a reverse discrimination that divides the nation.

RUSSERT: Well, University . . .

SEN. FRIST: And this division of the nation is not what I hope will be reflected in the United States Senate.

RUSSERT: University of Michigan has a very specific program, and I'll show it to you. The undergraduate [school] gives applicants points, with 100 out of 150 enough to establish admission. A perfect SAT score, for example, will net you 12 points. Being African American, Hispanic, or American Indian is worth 20 points. Do you agree with that, that you should get points towards admissions simply for being a minority?

SEN. FRIST: You know, I am opposed to racial quotas and racial set-asides that tend to divide people and not bring them together. I don't know the Michigan admissions policy, and I really don't want to comment on specifics of their policy. It is not really fair to me, since I know nothing about it.

Frist's answer isn't internally consistent. Frist rightly urges the administration not to run from racial issues, because "Republican principles are sound, they are solid," and notes that racial quotas and set-asides "tend to divide people and not bring them together." But when Russert presents him with a specific example of a program that, in its practical effects, meets the definition of a set-aside, Frist turns coy.

Like most Republican politicians, Frist and Bush distinguish the "original" intent of affirmative action--now often dubbed "affirmative access," meaning special outreach programs and the like--from "strict quotas," "preferences," or "set-asides." It's a valid distinction, and one that needs to be stressed continually. But too often Republicans use it merely to placate persons on both sides of the issue and avoid taking a principled stand.

The question for Republicans is this: Where do they draw the line? What magic formula must an affirmative-action program possess for it to cross into the territory of unacceptable "preferences," as opposed to benign "affirmative access"? The Michigan cases are the clearest test imaginable of whether this distinction is useful as anything other than soundbite fodder. Legally, the cases are a slam-dunk. The university runs what amounts to a dual-track admissions system, with two different standards--one for "underrepresented minorities," and one for everyone else. If the administration can't bring itself to oppose Michigan's program, what racial preference scheme will they oppose?