Anger on the Right, Opportunity for Bush

Ire over affirmative action makes the President look more centrist

There are times when a little thunder on the Right can be actually good for a conservative Republican President. And given conservatives' dismay over the Supreme Court's affirmative-action decision, this may be one of them. GOP activists, furious at the Administration's timid stance on the issue, are threatening a revolt over the Court's embrace of affirmative-action principles. But at the White House, where President George W. Bush applauded the split decision as a victory for diversity and his goal of a "color-blind society," serenity reigns.

Why? Because an unequivocal High Court ruling to invalidate racial preferences would have roiled the nation's social fabric in the runup to an election year. When the Administration earlier this year filed a brief asking the Court to overturn the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law-school affirmative-action programs, it hedged by saying that diversity was a laudable goal. Using the same rationale, the Court split its judgment, upholding preferences while nixing numerical quotas. That opinion allowed the President to claim a victory without sparking a polarizing revolution. "The [Administration's] brief was muddled at best," gripes conservative activist Gary Bauer. "Now, they're probably breathing a sigh of relief at the White House."

Maybe so, but hard-line conservatives aim to heat things up for the Administration. They are preparing to mount dozens of legal challenges and wage a war of public opinion on the airwaves and at the grassroots. Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which weighed in against affirmative action, already is searching for racially exclusive programs and will shower the Office for Civil Rights and the Education Dept. with complaints. "We will hold the Administration's feet to the fire," Chavez says. If Bush doesn't do the Right's thing, she warns, he risks "dampened enthusiasm" on Election Day.

In fact, all the sturm und drang on the Right won't necessarily hurt Bush. His political team is focused on cementing the affections of suburban swing voters in general and working women in particular. Conservative ire gives Bush an opportunity to appear more in the mainstream on diversity, with little danger that it will shake his unprecedented 92% support from his GOP base.

Still, social conservatives vow revenge. They want Bush to atone not just for his actions but for the sins of his father, who appointed "stealth jurist" David H. Souter to the Court in 1990. Souter, along with Ronald Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor, has been an enormous letdown for the Right, often siding with his liberal Court colleagues on key social issues.

The Right's mantra this year: No more Souters. Arch-conservatives are determined to dissuade Bush from naming White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales -- or any other perceived pragmatist -- to the Court. Conservatives blame Gonzales, who they say is squishy on racial preferences, for tempering the more doctrinaire views of Solicitor General Theodore B. Olsen in the White House's amicus brief in the Michigan case. "There is no room on the Supreme Court for any so-called moderate," says Janet L. Folger, president of Faith2Action, a conservative grassroots alliance.

And what of trouble from the middle? Liberal civil rights groups plan to spend some $3 million on a campaign to spotlight Bush's anti-preferences rhetoric and his hostility to race-based plans. But Bush's political team is betting that critical swing voters -- who tell pollsters they favor diversity but not strong affirmative-action plans -- won't be swayed. "Painting him as an extremist is not going to work," says Robert G. de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a right-leaning Hispanic group.

If Bush plays it well, the Michigan ruling could help him keep a solid lock on mainstream conservatives, woo suburban swing voters, and maintain his carefully nurtured image as "a uniter, not a divider." After Iraq and its messy aftermath, divisions on the home front are the last thing a President facing reelection wants or needs. As for all that grousing on the far Right -- it's probably music to George W.'s ears.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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