CHICAGO - Sen. John McCain yesterday endorsed a proposal to ban affirmative-action programs in his home state, a policy that Sen. Barack Obama called a disappointing embrace of divisive tactics.
In the past, McCain has criticized such ballot initiatives.
In an interview that aired yesterday, McCain was asked whether he supported an effort to get an initiative 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 presidential candidate 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 he and Obama have accused each other 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 in Chicago yesterday, 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 had 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. Supporters say the measure levels the playing field, giving everyone an equal chance at every job.
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 had 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 yesterday that affirmative action is not a long-term solution to discrimination, and that it must not ignore the problems of poor whites. He also argued that ballot initiatives such as the one in Arizona rarely helped 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.