When this latest civil rights battle in Washington is over, the country is almost certainly to be worse off. The debate, especially on the Republican side, has more to do with racial politics than civil rights. The House passed a Democratic-sponsored bill making it easier for minorities and women to legally challenge discrimination in the workplace. But the margin was more than a dozen votes short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override the veto threatened by President Bush.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where a handful of moderate Republicans are trying to fashion a compromise between the Democrats and the president. If they fail, it's likely the country will wind up with no civil rights bill, a racially charged political atmosphere and more racial polarization.
What the acrimonious civil rights fight between Congress and the White House has done is bring to the forefront of the national debate the issue of racial preferences in employment and college admissions at a time when Americans are being torn apart by a larger conflict over values, rights and culture.
The country is in a recession, making it easier for opponents of affirmative action programs to play on the economic insecurities and fears of white workers. Opinion surveys have found that many whites believe that anti-discrimination laws have gone too far in granting job preferences to minorities and women.
At the same time, there is a conviction among blacks, other minorities and women that they are being denied equal opportunity and that new anti-discrimination laws are needed. Even Bush has acknowledged that job discrimination is a problem. But his proposal, rejected by the House, was more concerned with making it easier for employers to defend themselves in discrimination suits.
These racial resentments are not limited to the workplace. Racial divisions are evident in other areas, including college campuses where affirmative action and an emphasis on "multi-culturalism" are creating discord and distrust among students and faculty.
Race, in one form or another, is still the most urgent domestic issue facing the nation, and Republicans continue to come up with images and codewords to tap white America's racial anxieties and worst instincts.
Whether the issue is crime, education, welfare, taxes or politics, the subtext is race, according to Thomas B. Edsall and Mary D. Edsall, two Washington journalists who addressed the color line in American politics in the May issue of Atlantic magazine.
"Race is no longer a straightforward, morally unambiguous force in American politics," the Edsalls write. "Instead, considerations of race are now deeply imbedded in the strategy and tactics of politics, in competing concepts of the function and responsibility of government, and in each voter's conceptual structure of moral and partisan identity.
"Race helps define liberal and conservative ideologies, shapes the presidential coalitions of the Democratic and Republican parties, provides a harsh new dimension to concern over taxes and crime, drives a wedge through alliances of the working class and the poor, and gives both momentum and vitality to the drive to establish a national majority inclined by income and demography to support policies benefitting the affluent and the upper-middle class."
Race, ideology and values are the fuel rods in the Republican political reactor. At the presidential level, Republicans have used those issues to change the way voters view the Democratic Party.
The Republicans have conjured up a new liberal establishment for the common people to hate, what the Edsalls describe as "an elite _ of judges, bureaucrats, newspaper editors, ACLU lawyers, academics, Democratic politicians, civil rights and feminist leaders _ determined to enact racially and socially redistributive policies demanding the largest sacrifices from the white working and lower-middle classes."
In the House, Democratic leaders tried to give their own as much political protection as they could. They included a provision to make quotas illegal and to allow reverse discrimination suits to be filed. They banned a practice known as "race norming," or boosting employment test scores for minorities. A cap was put on the amount of damages a woman could collect from an employer for sex discrimination.
None of this, however, satisfied the president, who continues to shout "quotas" whenever the Democratic bill is mentioned.
Democrats are nervous. They expect Republicans to come at them with the quota issue in next year's campaigns. One potential Democratic presidential contender has decided to distance himself from policies that could be interpreted as giving preferential treatment to minorities.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas recently ordered the state employment agency to end race norming. Clinton's spokesman acknowledged to reporters that no one in Arkansas had ever complained about the practice but added, "Nationally, it's controversial."
And nationally is how Clinton is viewing things these days. The governor explained why he put an end to race norming in Arkansas. "It doesn't feel right _ this whole idea of race norming," he said, adding that it "leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
Democrats haven't forgotten how Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina disposed of Harvey Gantt, his black Democratic opponent, last year. On the television screen, a pair of white hands crumple a job rejection letter. "You needed that job and you were the best qualified," the narrator says, "but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"
In this latest civil rights round, Democrats say, Bush delivered the same message from the highest office in the land.