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McCain Tests The Waters Of Race As Campaign Issue

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Has John McCain started to aggressively court the white vote?

It sounds like a question with an obvious answer. But when facing the first black nominee of a major party for president, the manner in which John McCain addresses white voters is bound to be a careful one -- and we may have just seen the first toe-dip. As several reports have pointed out, McCain's newly announced support for Arizona's anti-affirmative action ballot initiative over the weekend represents a reversal from ten years ago, when he called a similar effort "divisive."

As flip-flops go, however, this one was a gimmie. Obama, who has been careful not to define his political identity by his race, has largely avoided talking about affirmative action on the stump, and has even hinted at major changes to the program. Given that he faces an opponent who is unlikely to drill down on this particular flip-flop, McCain is relatively free to make the switch and reap the political benefit in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

"Affirmative action continues to be a symbolic issue that people find very emotional," said Notre Dame political scientist Darren Davis. "And because we're not debating a specific policy proposal at the moment, it's an easy wedge issue that most every American has an opinion on. So therefore the political mileage is gonna be a lot higher." While Davis doesn't necessarily believe McCain's flip-flop was planned by the campaign, he believes they are likely monitoring its aftermath in order to get a feeling for how race issues can factor in the general election.

"I have been waiting for the way in which the McCain campaign would begin to begin to racialize the [election]," Davis said. "And I think this is perhaps the beginning of it. ... I'm not suggesting that McCain is playing the race card at the moment. But this is the beginning of a racialized sentiment being infused in the campaign."

Conservative writer Deroy Murdock disagrees, however, saying: "I don't think [this is] a specific effort to appeal to white voters. Anything John McCain is doing to emphasize color blindness or race neutrality is a recapitulation of the basic American ideal of equality." Regarding the flip-flop, Murdock notes the fact that a full decade has elapsed since McCain's previous position. "He's changed his mind, and I think he's doing the right thing."

More than anyone else in the last decade, the man who engineered Arizona's anti-affirmative action initiative has shown how powerful the politics of the issue can be. Ward Connerly, a former regent of the University of California system, has become adept at using direct democracy to end the policy, state by state, at the initiative level. By re-framing affirmative action as reverse racism against white people that must be stamped out, Connerly, who is one-quarter black, has found success in all four states where his initiatives have made the ballot -- even when prominent Republicans have stood in his way.

In an era of close races between the two major political parties, Connerly's initiatives can win by double-digits. ("Fake Republicans run the other way," Murdock noted. "And there are a lot of fake Republicans. That's one of the reasons the base is so dejected.")

What's interesting is that, while Obama seems to know affirmative action as presently managed could pose a problem for Democrats, he has yet to set a dramatic new course on the issue. In an ABC interview from 2007, the Senator suggested that his own daughters should be deemed "pretty advantaged" by college admissions crews -- suggesting that affirmative action should be morphed from a race-based program into a class-sensitive one. Nevertheless, in response to McCain's repositioning over the weekend, Obama tried to split the difference. On the one hand, he said he still supports affirmative action "when properly structured" to avoid quotas, but also said: "affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in America, because, frankly, if you've got 50 percent of African-American or Latino kids dropping out of high school, it doesn't really matter what you do in terms of affirmative action. Those kids aren't going to college."

While that's a balanced take, it also fails to address the critical constituency of white voters who are uncomfortable with the current state of affairs. Meanwhile, McCain appears to be making a direct effort, addressing the aggrieved.

In addition to his affirmative action pivot, McCain's weekend radio address tapped the vein of another target of Middle America's resentment. Referencing Obama's well-covered foreign trip to the Middle East and Europe last week, McCain offered the following dig: "With all the breathless coverage from abroad, and with Senator Obama now addressing his speeches to 'the people of the world,' I'm starting to feel a little left out," McCain said, adding: "Maybe you are too."

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, said McCain's radio address brought to mind President Nixon's 1971 speech announcing wage and price controls. "Nixon sold the new policy on TV as a rescue of the American economy from 'the attacks of international money speculators,'" Perlstein said. "In this case, though, McCain isn't reaching back merely to Nixonian sentiment -- except in the fact that Nixon himself was reaching back to an ugly old Republican isolationism which had its heyday in the 1920s." (Once elected, of course, Nixon would flip-flop on both counts by going to China and supporting the "Philadelphia Plan" for affirmative action.)

The twin engines of racial resentment and isolationist sentiment may exist for McCain to power up this year as well, with immigration and high gas prices both serving as hot political topics. And just because the code words of Nixon's Southern Strategy -- busing and "states' rights" -- no longer exist today, that doesn't mean there aren't still votes to be gained by finding some new ones.

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