Yesterday, McCain announced his support for Ward Connerly's ballot initiative in Arizona, one that, like his others, postures as a pro-civil rights bill but outlaws the use of racial preferences in college admissions, government contracting, and employment. Although he confessed that he had not read the initiative, he added: “But I've always opposed quotas.”
But back in 1998, McCain criticized anti-affirmative action efforts. In a speech to Latino business leaders he argued: “Rather than engage in divisive ballot initiatives, we must have a dialogue and cooperation and mutual efforts together to provide for every child in America to fulfill their expectations.”
Even more damningly, that year, McCain joined a small group of Senate Republicans who voted with the Democrats to defeat a measure that would have abolished minority set asides on highway construction contracts. McCain reminded his colleagues that he was (at least then) a member of the "Party of Lincoln" (his quote). That said, McCain's defense of affirmative action was not exactly principled. He hoped to preserve the GOP's image. McCain stated that:
Unfortunately, discussing the inherent contradictions and shortcomings of affirmative action programs, the danger exists that our aspirations and intentions will be misperceived, dividing our country and harming our party. We must not allow that to happen.
It should be added that the set-asides that McCain defended in 1998 (10 percent of federal highway contracts for minority or women-owned firms) was the closest thing to a quota system that existed in 1998. (Recall that quotas in university admissions went by the wayside after the 1978 Bakke decision).
But McCain's position on affirmative action is troubling for more than its hypocrisy. There is a problematic racial calculus at work. McCain is trying to shove Obama onto the third rail of racial politics with hopes that the Democratic candidate will get fried. Obama has made it clear that he supports affirmative action in principle, but also that it's not central to his agenda. More than that Obama has made gestures toward the appealing if impractical arguments for the creation of a system of class-based affirmative action. But McCain is hoping to send a signal to bitter whites that Obama is just another Al Sharpton.
Expect the McCain campaign to continue to look for subtle ways to remind white voters that Obama is a scary, "white-hating" guy. Keeping the politics of race front and center is the GOP's only hope (and perhaps a scanty one) for victory in November.