McCain's Challenge

by Chris Bodenner
McCain just endorsed an anti-affirmative-action referendum in his home state of Arizona. ABC reports:

"I support it," McCain declared when asked about the referendum. "I do not believe in quotas... I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I’ve always opposed quotas." McCain has long opposed quotas but his new support for ending affirmative action programs which stop short of quotas puts him at odds not only with Democratic rival Barack Obama but also with the Arizona senator's own views in 1998. Back then, when the legislature in McCain's home state of Arizona considered sending the voters a measure to end affirmative action, McCain spoke out against it calling it "divisive."

Charges of flip-floppery aside, I think this could be a big opportunity -- or liability -- for Obama.  Though he's long supported affirmative action, his campaign has signaled that he's open to the idea of replacing race-based AA with class-based AA.  In an ABC interview last year, Obama said AA should be a "diminishing tool" for achieving racial equality. In his Philadelphia speech, which was framed around working-class racial solidarity, he specifically acknowledged the "anger" and "resentment" AA has caused.  If he were to call McCain's bluff and come out in support of phasing out racial and gender preferences, Obama could erase a potential wedge issue for the fall. But his response today was less than encouraging:

"I think in the past [McCain] had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he's right. You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they're all too often designed to drive a wedge between people."

But hasn't he acknowledged that AA itself is divisive?  It probably wouldn't be tactful for Obama to backtrack on his opposition to Connerly's initiatives, but Obama could respond by making some sort of grand gesture in favor of reforming AA.  I've always thought that Obama, with his symbolic story and "Yes We Can!" rhetoric, will be the president to end racial preferences (a policy that has to end at some point, whether you support it or not).  Who else would have the political and moral capital to do so?