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COLUMN RIGHT/ TERRY EASTLAND : Buchanan Has Bush Over a Barrel on Race : Only with the reasoning of Lincoln can the President overcome 'quota' accusations.

March 08, 1992|TERRY EASTLAND | Terry Eastland is a resident fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington

Patrick J. Buchanan accuses President Bush of breaking another promise by signing a quota bill. Bush says he didn't do that, but Buchanan has the better of this argument: The bill that Bush signed was far better than what Congress originally demanded, but still to some degree pushes employers to resort to preferences. So the President's best argument, that his resistance made a big difference, is blunted, because he would have to acknowledge that his vow never to sign a quota bill wasn't quite kept.

Buchanan does not discuss quotas, however, in terms of moral principles that could appeal equally to Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds. On the contrary, he proposes to sharpen racial and ethnic identities, even to suggest that some groups are more American than others. "Who speaks for the Euro-Americans?" asks Buchanan, who worries that "white Americans will be a minority by 2050." Buchanan is regrettably familiar: a candidate for office who opposes quotas in ways calculated to attract whites only.

Buchanan and Jesse Jackson thus have in common not only talk-show chairs at Cable News Network, but a talent for appeals that attract even as they exclude on the basis of race. Both are problems for their political parties, but Buchanan is especially a problem for his, not only because the Republican Party he proposes to transform is the party of Lincoln--and, not incidentally, of Clarence Thomas.

Buchanan believes that politics ought to be a matter of the heart, not the mind, but Lincoln taught otherwise. Lincoln taught that the politics of the United States must rest not upon blood but upon the principle found in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.

Consider how Lincoln argued from this principle. Observing an influx of German, Irish, French and Scandinavian immigrants, he noted in an 1858 speech that such people "cannot trace their connection with (the nation's founding in 1776) by blood." Yet, said Lincoln, they still were "our equals in all things," because of the Declaration itself, which he called "the father of all moral principle." For Lincoln, that principle placed all of mankind--including black slaves--on the same level, all possessed of the same natural rights.

If it is impossible to imagine Buchanan speaking from that principle, it is necessary for some politician today to do so. Obviously, given the unwanted contest he finds himself in and, indeed, the future of his own party, Bush ought to. It was this principle to which Clarence Thomas repaired as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He knew that it provides the best basis for opposing preference programs, which necessarily sharpen racial and ethnic identities and create hostility. Quotas and similar devices are bad not just for some but for all Americans, because they credit characteristics morally irrelevant to one's worth.

Bush says that Buchanan seeks to appeal to white voters "on a pure race thing." In the past, Bush has done that, too, only not so shamelessly. Bush's challenge is not just to fend off Buchanan but to be better on this issue than he himself has been. Were Bush to accept this challenge, he would call for an end to anti-quota arguments that seek to divide the races to win (white) votes, and argue the case against preferences in the racially inclusive, principled terms of his party's heritage.

Bush's challenge is also an opportunity to rebuild the national consensus on civil rights and to enhance equal opportunity. Large majorities of Americans have expressed to pollsters their opposition to racial preferences. At the same time, these polls show that Americans remain strongly opposed to racial discrimination and willing to help racial and ethnic minorities at the wholesale level through such race-neutral programs as Head Start.

There are other reasons such leadership is needed. With the end of the Cold War, as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has observed, "much of the world will see a new emphasis on competitive meritocracy and individualism." It is thus in our national interest to end our dalliance with uncompetitive measures like racial preferences.

The great tragedy of the Republican Party over the last decade is its failure to chart and push an agenda of equal opportunity grounded in its true principles. Were Bush to undertake this mission, the Buchanan alternative, which trades on racial resentment, might fare less well at the polls and within the GOP. Even more important, the nation might at last begin to see a way out of the debilitating racial politics now played by too many on both the left and the right.

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