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Why do Republicans lose every battle, even when they have the numbers on their side? The fight over racial preferences provides an excellent illustration.

The GOP doesn’t understand the art of confrontational politics — in which you take the fight to the opponent, battle on his turf rather than your own and play offense rather than defense whenever possible.

Last month, for instance, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to approve the nomination of Bill Lann Lee as Bill Clinton’s chief enforcer of civil rights laws because he favored the use of racial preferences in hiring, contracting and enrollment policies. This would seemingly signal a strong, partywide objection to what has become known as “affirmative action.” Yet, just a week before, the House Judiciary Committee killed a bill to ban such preferences. Go figure.

If Lee is unfit for the job because he merely supports laws already on the books — laws Congress is not yet ready to repeal — then you can certainly understand why Clinton has decided to use his executive powers to proceed with the appointment while Congress is in recess. Clinton is practicing the art of confrontational politics. He’s taking the fight to his opponents — who haven’t quite figured out where they stand on one of the defining issues of our time.

You see, Clinton knows a showdown is coming on the issue of racial preferences. He has a choice: Sit and wait around for opponents to set the agenda some time in the future, or take charge of the issue, set the terms of the debate and fight a skirmish right now while Republicans are divided. It’s no wonder Clinton has chosen the latter approach. He can’t lose.

At least not while unprincipled wimps like Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., are ready to join with the president and back Lee.

Before a single verbal volley in this battle is fired, Clinton has succeeded at dividing and conquering his political opponents on an issue on which he has little popular support and no moral foundation. That’s how you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by understanding the art of confrontational politics. Clinton gets it. The Republicans don’t.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz tried to explain to members of the House Judiciary Committee that, if properly framed, the issue of outlawing racial preferences is a winner for Republicans — not only with whites, but minorities as well. If you read between the lines, a new New York Times/CBS poll makes the case even more effectively.

When asked whether a black college applicant should be admitted to help achieve more racial balance, clear majorities of both races — 69 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks — said no, that race should not be a factor in the decision.

Well, now, it just so happens that the goal of “racial diversity” is the No. 1 argument cited by proponents of affirmative action or racial preferences. Here’s an opening for those who would like to return our country to constitutional principles. The instincts of Americans — white and black — are right. They understand “diversity” is a phony, unachievable, ambiguous and nebulous goal.

Only when blacks believe preferential racial hiring is being used to correct specific instances past discrimination do they line up behind it, even though whites still oppose it overwhelmingly.

It’s a game of semantics, as recent votes in California and Houston prove. In California last year, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative banning racial preferences in any state-sponsored program. The meaningless, but positive-sounding term, “affirmative action” was not used on the ballot. Meanwhile, in Houston, voters decisively voted to oppose scrapping the city’s “affirmative action” programs in hiring and contracting.

In the recent Times/CBS poll, only 26 percent — including 21 percent of whites and 51 percent of blacks — said they would favor programs that “give preferential treatment to racial minorities.” Even fewer, 19 percent and a minority of blacks, said they would favor programs that “impose quotas for racial minorities.”

So why are Republicans so afraid of taking this issue on? Why haven’t they rallied behind the courageous efforts and leadership of California’s Ward Connerly? How can they be dealt a winning hand and play it so badly?

Because they don’t know how to practice the art of confrontational politics. They simply don’t know how to win. And they show no signs of figuring it out anytime soon.

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