During the first six months of his presidency, George W. Bush sided consistently with conservatives on issues ranging from the environment to missile defenses. But as President Bush aims to get back to the "compassionate" conservatism that he campaigned on, he is signaling compromise. The first was his decision on the funding of stem cell research. Now the administration is taking the soft road on an important affirmative action case; this week it asked the Supreme Court to uphold a federal minority set-aside program.
Bush's solicitor general, Theodore B. Olson, has used language that isn't traditionally associated with conservatives to defend the program, noting that the persistence of racial discrimination means that "the government is not disqualified from acting in response to it." Another sign of Bush refusing to be cornered by the right wing of his party? Not so fast. The tough decision for Bush on affirmative action is yet to come.
During the presidential campaign, Bush himself was downright Clintonian on the topic. He said he didn't believe in it, but he refused to support Proposition 209, the California voter initiative that struck down state affirmative action hiring policies in 1996.
What he did believe in was something else: "affirmative access." Just what affirmative access was, he never really made clear. Bush's record as governor of Texas didn't do much to clear up the matter. He signed legislation for employment in businesses, but his own appointments were not remarkable.
Bush was wont to cite Texas' "10% law," which he signed in 1997, as one of his great accomplishments. Under that law, Texas public colleges and universities are required to admit anyone in the top 10% of his or her class. Ironically, the law depends on segregated high schools in order to function effectively as a substitute for traditional affirmative action. In any event, it did significantly boost minority enrollment.
It is on the very issue of race-based college admissions that Bush may find his hand forced, just as it was on stem cells. Two prominent cases challenging affirmative action admissions at the University of Michigan and the University of Georgia are making their way through the courts. How aggressively Bush and the Justice Department pursue these controversial cases will provide a true test of whether the administration will stand for enhanced opportunities for many of the minority voters he seeks to embrace.