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Taking the low road on civil rights

Like it or not, someday we'll have to spend real money to clean up the mess caused by centuries of racial discrimination _ the bombed-out inner cities filled with worsening despair _ or to suppress it. But in vetoing the Civil Rights Bill of 1990, President Bush missed a chance to get off cheap for the time being: The bill, which only addressed the problems of those minorities and women already lucky enough to be able to compete for jobs, would have cost the debt-ridden government nothing but a little political courage. But even that was more than Mr. Bush was willing to pay.

Instead, he seized the opportunity to send a few messages to shore up his flagging political prospects. His message to conservatives and the David Duke wing of the GOP: I may have changed my mind on taxes, but I'm right on race.

His message to minorities and women: I talk a good game, but basically you're on your own.

The bill would have strengthened workplace protections that had existed for years until the Supreme Court eroded them in a recent series of decisions. Mr. Bush argues that the measure makes employers so vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits that they would be forced to resort to hiring quotas to avoid expensive court fights.

That argument is not persuasive. Even staunch opponents of quotas such as the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith endorsed the bill, as did Mr. Bush's own appointed head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Its framers went to great lengths to accommodate the president's concerns. In the end it was clear that he would endorse nothing short of a toothless, symbolic measure that matches his own non-approach to domestic issues.

Similar quota complaints have been thrown at virtually any law designed to fight job discrimination. Such divisive rhetoric basically exploits racialanimosity, as did the Willie Horton strategy. It's very discouraging to hear it coming from a president many perceive as basically decent.

This veto should put to rest any illusions that Mr. Bush has any governing philosophy besides political expediency. The "vision thing" that failed to produce budget leadership is also nowhere to be found in his approach to dealing with victims of discrimination. If the president had been governing in the 1960s, we'd still be waiting to pass a basic voting rights or public accommodations bill.

Gone too is any realistic expectation of increased GOP support among black Americans, who had given Mr. Bush their strongest approval of any Republican president since Eisenhower. Blacks, who thought they finally had at least a sympathetic ear in the White House after eight years of the cold shoulder from Ronald Reagan, are bitterly disappointed.

The Senate has already rebuffed an override attempt, but the bill's chief House sponsor, Rep. Augustus Hawkins, D-Calif., still would be mistaken to keep his pledge not to bother with another in the House. The override vote is the only one that matters, and with congressional elections less than two weeks away it's important to get every representative's stance on record.

Mr. Bush called his veto decision a difficult one. He should see how it feels from the receiving end, among those who suffer each day from the silent evil of unfair treatment in the workplace or the employment office.

Those voters his decision was calculated to placate should remind themselves that there is a sure way to render civil rights measures obsolete: Fight for simple fairness for minorities and women in every area of life, and stop the hypocrisy of pretending that discrimination doesn't exist.