CHICAGO (AP) — Presidential candidate John McCain on Sunday endorsed a proposal to ban affirmative action programs in his home state, a policy that Democratic rival Barack Obama called a disappointing embrace of divisive tactics.
In the past, McCain has criticized such ballot initiatives.
In an interview that aired Sunday, McCain was asked whether he supported an effort to get a referendum on the ballot in Arizona that would do away with race and gender-based preferences, known as affirmative action.
“Yes, I do,” said McCain in an interview on ABC's “This Week.” The Republican senator quickly added that he had not seen the details of the proposal. “But I've always opposed quotas.”
His reversal comes as McCain seeks to tailor his policies and rhetoric to independent-minded voters who will determine the outcome of November election. Both McCain and Obama have accused each other — with good reason — of “flip-flopping,” a charge that carries weight with voters seeking consistency and authenticity in their political leaders.
Speaking to a conference of minority journalists on Sunday, Obama said he was “disappointed” by McCain's position.
“I think in the past he had been opposed to these kinds of Ward Connerly referenda or initiatives as divisive. And I think he's right,” Obama said, referring to a leading critic of affirmative action.
Obama also said he has little interest in an official government apology for slavery or reparations for descendants of slaves. The government's focus, he said, should be on providing jobs, education and health for people still struggling today.
The proposed referendum in Arizona involves a constitutional amendment to bar preferential treatment by public entities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
A similar referendum may appear this fall on ballots in Nebraska.
Supporters say the measures level the playing field, giving everyone an equal chance at every job. They say most people support the measure and want the chance to vote on it.
Opponents say they play to people's fears that unqualified minorities are being picked over qualified non-minorities. Affirmative action, they say, ensures good-faith efforts to recruit minority candidates and keep people accountable for their hiring decisions.
The Nebraska and Arizona groups pushing the measures are affiliated with Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights Initiative, and its Super Tuesday for Equal Rights Fund.
A decade ago, McCain condemned initiatives aimed at dismantling affirmative action, though he stopped short of directly criticizing a resolution pending in the state legislature at the time.
“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 told Hispanic business leaders gathered in Washington in 1998.
A spokesman said in a statement that McCain has always opposed hiring quotes based on race. “He believes that regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, the law should be equally applied,” the spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said.
Obama said Sunday that affirmative action is not a long-term solution to discrimination, and that it must not ignore the problems of poor whites. But “some of the hardships and difficulties that communities of color may have experienced.”
He also argued ballot initiatives like the one in Arizona rarely help people work together.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama was asked whether he supports an official government apology for slavery or the country's treatment of American Indians. He replied that he would discuss the idea with Indian leaders but that it is more important to provide services that will help people escape poverty and improve their lives. The same is true of an apology or reparations for slavery, he said.
“I'm much more interested in talking about, how do we get every child to learn? How do we get every person health care? How do we make sure that everybody has a job?” Obama said.
Photo: Sen. Barack Obama, left, and John McCain, right.