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Candidates Wobble on Affirmative Action

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Jul 30, 2008

Editor's Note: Republicans are hoping anti-affirmative action ballot measures in Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona will draw conservatives to the polls in November. The issue appears to be a win-win for John McCain, writes the commentator. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back."

In 1998, Republican presidential contender John McCain drew howls from conservatives when he opposed Senator Mitch McConnell's federal transportation bill that would have replaced race and gender contracting set-asides with ones designed to help small businesses no matter the race or gender of the owner. But was a Senate vote, and McCain's vote passed way under the media and public's radarscope. Most importantly, it was not a presidential election year. So McCain didn't gain or lose much by voting to keep racial preferences in place, at least at the federal level.

A decade later, things are different. McCain has deftly shifted gears and urges a "yes" vote on Ward Connerly's anti-affirmative action initiative on the Arizona ballot in November. McCain bets that this time, pummeling affirmative action will do far more good than bad for his campaign. It's a smart bet. A big opponent of Connerly's barnstorming state campaigns to dump affirmative action, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary, candidly admits that the only way to beat back these initiatives is to keep them off the ballots.

That didn't happen in California in 1996, in Washington in 1998 or in Michigan in 2006. The anti-affirmative action initiatives won by solid, even crushing, margins in all three states. In the process, they galvanized public opinion, stirred subtle white resentment against anything that smacked of racial preferences, and sent the message that pushing affirmative action was a politically losing proposition.

Michigan proved this: The two GOP candidates for governor and the Senate in the state opposed Connerly's initiative. Both lost. But even more important, the measure did not stir a mad dash by blacks, women or Latinos from other states to defeat the initiative. The lesson from the GOP candidate's defeat, and the relatively mild backlash to the initiative, wasn't lost on McCain.

At one point, Connerly talked about taking his anti-affirmative action initiative fight to more than a dozen states. That hasn't happened. But the number of states where Connerly dumped the initiative on the ballot isn't important. What is important is the timing and the specific states he chose.

Three states were picked for November: Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona.

Nebraska, a solid red state, will almost certainly pass the initiative, election year or not. The other two states, Colorado and Arizona, are much more important. Democrats think that Colorado could, for the first time in recent presidential bouts, be in play for Obama. They think the same thing about McCain's home state of Arizona.

Both states have seen a big jump in the number of Hispanic and younger voters. The Connerly initiative could counter that by creating a wedge issue in both states that energizes conservatives to rush the polls.

That's one political plus, but it's not the only one. McCain can have it both ways on the issue. He can insist that he still strongly backs equal opportunity and just as strongly opposes discrimination. He can then make the standard anti-affirmative action pitch that he backs the Connerly initiative precisely because it strikes a blow against discrimination, namely racial preferences. And after all, isn't everyone, and that even includes more than a few blacks, Latinos and Asians, against anything that smacks of racial unfairness?

Democratic rival Barack Obama appears to agree with McCain on this point. At first glance it may seem a wild stretch. Connerly says that Obama aired radio ads in 2006 hammering his Michigan anti-affirmative action initiative, and unabashedly saying that if it passed it would hurt women and minorities in getting jobs and in education. Obama will oppose Connerly's initiatives. But just as McCain wobbled in 1998 in opposing McConnell's anti-affirmative action bill, Obama passionately defended affirmative action in 2006 (both non-election years). Now that it is an election year, Obama seems to be slightly wobbling on affirmative action, just as McCain did.

Obama has repositioned himself as a centrist Democrat and now flatly says he's against quotas. That's an easy call, since courts have repeatedly slapped down any affirmative action programs that mandate specific numbers of women or minorities to be hired or admitted to colleges. But Obama wobbles even more when he says that affirmative action measures should not be applied without taking into consideration individual needs, and that they should be applied to poor whites. The caution with which he speaks of affirmative action is a far cry from the ringing endorsement he once gave to affirmative action for women and minorities.

It's no real surprise. McCain aims to make Connerly's initiative a political win-win for him. Obama aims to make sure that it's not a total lose-lose for him.

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