Anyone wondering why President Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 may like the president's own explanation, which is that the bill would impose quotas, whether its sponsors say so or not. The Senate sustained the veto Wednesday. Any skeptic seeking a more objective reason for the veto is advised to look at public opinion trends since a clear partisan split developed over the budget and taxes.
Last week, a survey found Bush's favorable rating at 70 percent, which is well above where it has stood in other polls in the past few weeks. On specifics, however, most of the figures had to give the president and his handlers the shivers. On domestic policy, 55 percent graded him below average on handling the economy, as did 67 percent on deficit reduction. Eighty-three percent thought that the economy is getting worse.
But the most threatening finding to a president and party who must take away working-class Democratic votes to win a national election was that 58 percent see Bush and the Republicans protecting the interests of the wealthy, rather than the middle class or the poor.
Yet to GOP strategists, the flip side of that question looks like opportunity rather than trouble. While 44 percent thought that the Democrats look out for the middle class, even more _ 48 percent _ thought that they are more concerned about the poor.
The Democrats, during the budget-tax debate, have effectively cast the president as a coddler of taxpayers in his own privileged category, while they stand up for the working man and woman. This cuts against the Republican effort, even more effective in the past decade, of courting the middle class while putting down the Democrats as the party of "special interests," by which they mean women and minorities rather than corporations and millionaires.
The civil rights bill arrived on Bush's desk just when he needed it, when he was on the defensive for insisting on tax breaks for the rich, while eagerly approving regressive excise taxes that are hardest on the poor.
No issue has been more useful to the GOP during the Reagan-Bush years than civil rights, or anti-civil rights, as leaders of the movement call it. Former President Reagan's right-hand man and attorney general, Ed Meese, and his assistant attorney general for civil rights, Brad Reynolds, insisted that anything smacking of affirmative action meant quotas, and quotas were unfair _ and millions of voters agreed.
The White House surely noticed the election returns in Louisiana a couple of weeks ago. There, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader and avowed Republican David Duke got 44 percent of the vote against moderate Democratic Sen. Bennett Johnston.
Duke did not speak in old-fashioned Klan language to achieve that public relations victory. He made himself a national political figure by speaking in code, about equal rights for everyone, including white citizens. His most effective lines were against affirmative action, which he calls reverse discrimination. That rhetoric appeals to working whites, even those who don't believe in lynching.
Bush has courted civil rights leaders and by implication, he was on their side. Anyone watching had to assume that if a civil rights bill were laid before him, he would sign it and brag about it.
But that was before his poll standings went south, before his adamant stand on taxes weakened his apparent grip on middle-class voters. Congress sent him the Civil Rights Bill of 1990 in the perfect nick of time.