Bush May Have Won More Than A New Justice

The strategy is typical of George Bush. After a bruising fight to get Clarence Thomas a seat on the Supreme Court, the President ordered his aides to resist gloating and to adopt what one close adviser terms a "thoughtful, soothing" approach in victory.

There's more underpinning the strategy than Bush's noblesse oblige. The Thomas fight has fueled public disgust with the Democratically controlled Congress. And it has split the Democratic coalition, estranging blacks and feminists. But the Republicans have problems, too. The party, already deeply divided over abortion rights, must now defend itself against charges that it is insensitive to the concerns of working women.

'LYNCHING.' Democrats have limped away from the fight with the most serious wounds. Black activists and feminist groups are two of the party's most reliable constituencies. Both began united in opposition to the nomination. But faced with a charge of sexual harassment, Thomas accused his opponents of a "high-tech lynching." The tactic rallied black support to his side, muzzled his Democratic inquisitors, and left women's groups fuming that they had been abandoned. Unless the rift can be mended, the Democrats will have a tough time pushing a civil rights bill through Congress and passing other key domestic legislation.

The episode also raised serious questions about whether either women's groups or black organizations have many followers. After the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm, feminist leaders such as Kate Michelman of the National Abortion Rights Action League vowed revenge at the ballot box. "The calls we are getting indicate that folks will not forget this," said Claudia Withers of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Trouble is, polls showed that women supported Thomas nearly as strongly as men and were equally inclined to believe him over Hill (charts).

Civil rights groups have worse problems. Led by NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks, they made the defeat of Thomas a top priority but watched helplessly as the majority of blacks swung behind Thomas. Blacks, who increasingly suspect that the Democratic Party takes their support for granted, are saying they will pursue an independent course to defend their own interests. "I don't want to be nobody's affirmative-action nigger," declares Thomas supporter Polly Williams, a Democratic state representative who ran Jesse Jackson's 1988 Presidential campaign in Wisconsin. "The whites have their own agenda for helping us. We got locked into the liberal agenda."

The leaders of mainline civil rights organizations have still more problems. They always identify themselves with the concerns of the poor. But the millions of Americans who tuned in to the Thomas hearings saw a Black America that heretofore existed mainly in the rhetoric of Reaganites: Upwardly mobile black professionals, those who talk about case law, drive expensive cars -- and are skeptical about many of the goals of the civil rights movement. While this group of upscale blacks is still tiny, its prominence during the Thomas hearings "gives new legitimacy to the black Republican conservatives," says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "They matter now. They have a new profile."

As if the Democrats didn't have enough to worry about, there's the spreading perception that their inept handling of the Thomas matter has increased the chances for voter retaliation against incumbents next fall. "The Democrats, after a dozen years in the wilderness, have reached a point of strategic disarray that they simply can't overcome," observes Ralph Whitehead, a political expert at the University of Massachusetts. Coming on the heels of disclosures about House members bouncing checks and running up huge restaurant tabs, the spectacle will fuel the grass-roots movement to limit legislators' terms. "It's one more log on the bonfire for voters who think Congress can't do anything right," laments Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.

One reason Republicans can't afford to be be smug about the Democrats' discomfort is that the GOP faces its own rendezvous with the divisive politics of gender. With antiabortion forces clamoring to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision and the Supreme Court packed with conservatives, some party strategists fear a backlash. Many Republican women activists and officeholders are demanding that the 1992 GOP platform drop strident antiabortion language. They're threatening a floor fight at the nominating convention in Houston.

If the court strikes down Roe, abortion rights would have to be settled in Congress and 50 state legislatures. Polls show a clear majority of the public favors abortion rights, and Republicans risk serious defections, especially among women, if the issue boils over. "We have a vision of becoming the majority party," says Mary Dent Crisp, chair of the National Republican Coalition for Choice. "But as long as the party takes this anti-choice position, it will never achieve that goal."

ONE OF THE BOYS? For all his efforts to stay above the fray, Bush didn't emerge unscathed from the brawl over Thomas. In polls taken just before the controversy exploded, the President had nearly erased the "gender gap" in his approval rating that had opened during the gulf war. By brushing off Anita Hill's charges against Thomas as a "smear," Bush "may have reinforced the impression that he doesn't understand women. He's one of the boys, standing with the boys," concedes one GOP strategist.

Both parties may react to the Thomas affair by trying to appear more sensitive to women's concerns. "In the next few weeks, you won't be able to find a Democrat or Republican lawmaker who doesn't have his name on a bill that would toughen laws against sexual harassment," says Jane Danowitz of the bipartisan Women's Campaign Fund. In addition, parental-leave legislation could get a bit of a boost (page 47 33 ).

The most lasting impact of the Thomas duel may be on the politics of race. As the 1992 campaign gets started, Democrats are preparing to depict George Bush as a calculating promoter of racial resentment. They will point to the GOP's 1988 "Willie Horton" ads and will assail the President's veto of civil rights legislation as proof that Bush seeks to divide in order to conquer.

By steadfastly backing a black jurist against a political "lynching" at the hands of liberal interest groups, however, the President has given himself a partial shield against this line of attack. The upshot: Bush may not be quite as vulnerable on the domestic front as Democrats had hoped.