Affirmative, Captain


Ten years ago, as you will hear again and again, John McCain opposed an Arizona anti-affirmative action initiative that never made it on the ballot.

Today, one of Ward Connerly's initiatives makes the Arizona ballot, and McCain is for it.

"I do not believe in quotas," McCain said on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos. "But I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I've always opposed quotas."

When the Arizona Legislature considered a similar plan 10 years ago, McCain told a Hispanic group that "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." McCain also said he opposed race-based hiring quotas.

Obama has attacked McCain for supporting something so "divisive," and Roger Clegg takes him to task:

Obama's criticism is wrongheaded for at least three reasons: (1) it is obviously preferential policies that are divisive, not their abolition; (2) the "big problem" of helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds can be addressed by helping people of all colors who are disadvantaged, rather than crudely and unfairly using race as a proxy for disadvantage; and (3) Obama himself has recognized as much, albeit fitfully and inconsistently, in his own statements—for instance, acknowledging the divisiveness of preferential treatment (in his Philadelphia speech), and the fact that his own daughters, for starters, come from privileged backgrounds and thus are "probably" not deserving of preferential treatment.

Indeed, it's a bad issue for Obama to grapple with: If Arizona's half as conservative as, say, Michigan, the initiative will pass easily. Obama's answer to a question about affirmative action at this weekend's Unity convention (the question was wether Obama's election would end a need for AA) was more coherent.

I've also said that affirmative action is not going to be the long-term solution to the problems of race in American 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 are not getting into college….There have been times where affirmative action has been viewed as a shortcut to solving some of these broader, long-term, structural problems.

I know Mickey Kaus has been clamoring for Obama to swing right on affirmative action and therby assuage white doubts; I think that's the right strategy, especially if (when he's not scoring points against McCain) he believes it. What McCain has to gain from the issue, I'm less sure.