Affirmative Action: MEND IT, DON'T END IT

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All year Bill Clinton has been hurrying toward political center on everything from balancing the budget to school prayer. So it seemed a safe bet that his 4-1/2-month review of federal affirmative-action programs would end with a decision aimed at placating "angry white males" opposed to racial preferences. Instead, in a speech last week, Clinton delivered an unequivocal endorsement of affirmative action. His message: "Mend it, don't end it."

What made him stand his ground? For one thing, he seems to be in synch with a majority of those questioned in a TIME/CNN poll taken after the speech. Asked about federal affirmative-action plans in language mimicking Clinton's, 65% said they should be "mended"; just 24% said "ended."

Clinton was also influenced by Dick Morris, the sometime Republican political consultant who has emerged this year as the President's favored guru. Although he has been credited with urging the President to the right lately, Morris worked on the speech with senior aide George Stephanopoulos, the more liberal adviser who oversaw the Administration's review. Says a senior White House official: "[Morris] knows Clinton has supported affirmative action his whole career and can't back away."

Despite the strong sentiments in Clinton's speech, the 96-page review it introduced concludes that a number of minority set-asides will have to be revised or eliminated to comply with the recent Supreme Court ruling that requires them to serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to their goals. In his speech the President tried to reassure liberals that they have an ally in the White House on affirmative action. But with the impact of the high-court decision looming, says a top Clinton aide, alluding to the impact of the Supreme Court decision, "there's a day of reckoning coming."

--By James Carney/Washington