- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The president's filings in the cases challenging the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies pending before the Supreme Court are a profound disappointment. In failing to condemn outright the use of race as a sole factor in the admissions process at academic institutions, the Bush administration has missed an historic opportunity to bring government policy into conformity with the 14th Amendment. According to White House statements and news accounts, this was a decision made personally by the president. As such, it is a decision that measurably subtracts from the reasons why conservatives should support President Bush.

Which is not to say that, legally, the briefs weren't clever. While the president does appear to argue that race can be a legitimate factor in the academic admissions process, the race-neutral means he outlines essentially preclude race from ever being the sole factor. In other words, it's as if the White House argued that race-specific measures are allowed whenever Christmas doesn't fall in December. As Curt Levey of the Center for Individual Rights, the group that represents the denied Michigan students, told us: "If the court completely adopted the analysis in this brief, racial preferences would be over, at least in admissions."

Still, while the president's Michigan briefs are at face value legal documents, they are also political ones.As such, it is clear that this Republican administration lacked the courage to say forthrightly that race-specific measures are unconstitutional under any circumstances. Whatever the Supreme Court's ruling later this year and it likely will be a tight one the debate within political circles over affirmative action in the academic admissions process will be far from settled. Sadly, President Bush has only added to this confusion.

Those directly involved in the Bush administration's struggle on this issue assure us that the president strongly dislikes race-specific measures, but that for his White House to say so would not be "politically palatable." Presumably, they mean that to oppose affirmative action might harm Mr. Bush's efforts to effectively proselytize the Republican Party among minority groups, particularly Hispanics.

In fact, fudging on affirmative action isn't necessary even at a level of electoral calculation. Prominent studies, including one by the Pew Hispanic Center highlighted recently on this page, demonstrate that the political decisions of Hispanics are not governed by the same aggrieved group-think as other minority groups. As such, efforts to woo Hispanics do not require the pandering that has historically marked minority outreach. The undiluted message of social conservatism has widespread appeal in the Hispanic community, and sticking with principles does not preclude the Republican Party from getting its fair share of votes.

Of course, no president should be judged on any one decision, and Mr. Bush's overall performance is vastly encouraging to conservatives as well as many other Americans. But inevitably, as this page periodically assesses the record of this president, his actions in the Michigan cases unmistakably go on the wrong side of the ledger.

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