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 it was a Senate vote, and McCain's vote passed way under the media and public's radar scope. Most importantly for McCain, it was not a presidential election year. So McCain didn't really gain or lose a whole lot by voting to keep racial preferences in place, at least at the federal level.
A decade later things are different, much 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 ballots. That didn't happen in California in 1996, in Washington in 1998 and 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 even anger against anything that smacked of racial preferences, and sent a big message that pushing affirmative action was a politically losing proposition. Michigan proved that. 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, and Latinos to the barricades in Washington and Michigan 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 for placing the initiative on a state ballot and the states chosen to put it. Three states were picked for November. Nebraska is one. It's a solid Red state, and almost certainly the initiative will win big there. 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. That's mostly due to the big jump in the number of Hispanic and younger voters in these states. The Connerly initiative is just the thing to counter that by creating a mini wedge issue in both states that energizes conservatives too rush the polls to back the initiative and stick around long enough to back McCain.
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 especially Asians, against anything that smacks of racial unfairness?
There's more still. Democratic rival Barack Obama appears to agree with McCain on this point. At first glance that seems a wild stretch. Connerly says Obama cut 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. And he will oppose Connerly's initiatives.
But just as McCain wobbled in 1998 in opposing McConnell's anti-affirmative action bill when it wasn't a presidential election year. 2006 wasn't a presidential election year either when Obama passionately defended affirmative action. 2008 is. He's slightly wobbling on affirmative actions just as McCain did.
He 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 be hired or admitted to colleges. But Obama wobbled even more when he says that the affirmative action measures should not be applied without taking into individual needs, and they should be applied to poor whites. The caution and even shading on how he speaks of affirmative action is a far cry from the ringing endorsement he 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.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more