John McCain injected race directly into the general election, declaring on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulis that he supported an Arizona initiative by California businessman Ward Connerly. McCain has previously spoken out against such initiatives as “divisive.”

The presumptive Republican nominee’s newest flip flop – he had also previously not supported off-shore drilling – seems designed to shore up support on his right flank. In this regard, David Jackson of USA Today writes, “Democratic Party spokesman Damien LaVera said. McCain voiced support to placate Republican conservatives and is ‘putting his political ambitions ahead of principle.’ LaVera cited McCain’s new found support for Bush-era tax cuts and offshore oil drilling. McCain said letting the tax cuts expire would amount to a tax hike in bad economic times, while $4-a-gallon gas has altered his position on offshore drilling.”

Asked by the ABC news host if he supported the Arizona ballot initiative, McCain said “’Yes, I do. I do not believe in quotas. But I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I’ve always opposed quotas.”

Washington Post columnist Robert Barnes however, points out that the Arizona measure does not concern “quotas”. “Quotas”, Barnes writes, “ are not an issue in the proposals, because the courts for years have been striking them down.” State institutions now use other language to achieve diversity. Connerly’s goal is to prevent any measure seeking to achieve such results.

McCain’s caving in to the far right stands in sharp contrast to previous positions. As Thinkprogress.org’s Progress Report observes:

‘Not only has McCain previously resisted state-level efforts to dismantle affirmative action, as he did in 1998, but he has also defended such programs on the federal level. In 1998, McCain worked with Democrats to defeat an amendment that would have ended a program that sought ‘to give 10 percent of all Federally financed highway contracts to companies owned by minorities and women.’

The Progrss report continues that as recently as the spring McCain ‘reiterated this support … telling reporters in Ohio, ‘all of us are for affirmative action to try to give assistance to those who need it, whether it be African-American or other groups of Americans that need it.’

Senator Barack Obama, speaking at the Unity journalists conference in Chicago, expressed “disappointment” in McCain’s reversal. Obama previously has spoken in favor of looking into income based affirmative action in addition to those based on race and gender.

Some are calling on Obama to use the occasion to come out against affirmative action entirely. Andrew Sullivan, for example wrote that If he were to call McCain’s bluff and come out in support of phasing out racial and gender preferences, Obama could erase a potential wedge issue for the fall.” The implication here is that the Democrat would “reform” the program by basing it on “class” alone.

Obama seems disinclined to accept this notion, repeating what McCain himself said ten years ago. “You know, the truth of the matter is, these are not designed to solve a big problem, but they’re all too often designed to drive a wedge between people.’

Voters will also decide on anti-affirmative action ballot measures in Colorado and Nebraska in the fall.

McCain is due to speak at an Urban League meet on Friday.

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