Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Colin Powell's Endorsement "Means"

As has been predicted for several days, the former Secretary of State, Ret. Gen. Colin Powell, announced on today's Meet the Press that he will be voting for Sen. Barack Obama in this year's presidential election. Powell, who has been repeatedly and lavishly praised by Obama's opponent, Sen. John McCain, over the last eight years, claimed to be "disappointed" with both McCain's campaign tactics and his choice of running-mate (Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin). He cited Obama as a "transformational" candidate.

So, what, exactly, does this mean for the candidates' campaigns? Pundits on the left(ish) side of the political spectrum are predictably enthusiastic about this turn of events- Powell has always been perceived by many as a statesman-like figure whose military and foreign policy background are unassailable. More importantly, he is a Republican who served Pres. G.W. Bush, and thus his endorsement appears to be another piece of evidence supporting the idea that the Republican "brand" is so damaged that its own followers are "seeing the light." Expressions like "the final nail in McCain's coffin" have been used by some with glee. There's no question that this is not a good thing for McCain.

This particular image of Powell, however, is not necessarily an accurate one- people with short memories on the Left might want to remind themselves of Powell's complicity, even cowardice, in promoting the Bush administration's Iraq War. If Powell's own dishonesty in endorsing that war isn't directly responsible for the thousands of American and Iraqi lives (and billions of taxpayer dollars) that have been unnecessarily lost in the last several years, then it is certainly a major factor. It is valid to ask why Obama supporters should even be PROUD of this endorsement- and to wonder why Powell is considered "credible" in a way that other Bush administration figures are not. Most people learn at a very early age that it helps to be popular with the big men on campus, but that popularity doesn't always speak well of us or our goals. Would we be this excited if the endorsement had come from Donald Rumsfeld? How would that endorsement be any different, really?

The fact is, Powell's endorsement doesn't actually "mean" much- at least not to Obama supporters. It is important to keep in mind that Obama already had a clear lead in both polls and in the Electoral College tally that various news and punditry organizations maintain. If one looked at the CNN map last night, things already seemed pretty dire for the McCain camp.

If we take as a given the "solid" Democratic and Republican states in the current map, and also assume that the current analysis of which states are "leaning" one way or another is accurate (we should do neither, of course- the election is not won or lost, yet, and complacency can ONLY be a bad thing), then the current conventional wisdom is that there are only six states that can not already be "called" for one candidate or another. In order to capture the 270 electoral votes he would need to win or tie, McCain would need to win ALL SIX of those states, AND, in the next two weeks, change the minds of at least one and possibly two of the states that are currently considered "blue" or "blue-leaning." Obama needs (according to CNN) only to "hang in" for the next two weeks to capture the presidency. Considering the financial and logistical resources it will take to vigorously campaign in that many states- resources the McCain campaign does not have- McCain's chances look slim. This is a fact that McCain himself has already acknowledged, saying that "Obama is already measuring the drapes" for the White House. As usual, McCain's attempt to be snide (he would say "funny") backfires- as with most of McCain's quips, his sarcasm instead reveals McCain's own inner mind- even HE doesn't really think he can win at this point.

So really, a Powell endorsement of Obama only "hurts" the McCain campaign in the same way that a pin-up girl painted on the Enola Gay would have "hurt" Hiroshima- it's not the injury- it's the insult.

However, Powell's endorsement may still have MEANING, even if it doesn't actually affect things much- and that meaning will come from the inevitable reaction of those on the Right whose egos are assuredly bruised by this endorsement. It will become very interesting to parse the words of prominent McCain officials and supporters in the next few days, because they will undoubtedly reveal a great deal about the Republican mind. I predict three separate reactions. The first two are easy to guess, if we look at what happened to Scott McLellan, Richard Clarke, and Anthony Zinni, among other former Bush administration staffers who have since criticized their former employers. The somewhat more politic among Republican die-hards will sadly shrug and shake their heads (or provide a written equivalent) and claim that Powell is "out-of-touch," "misinformed," or "deluded." The more bellicose (severe blond women with prominent adam's apples and Fox News blowhards among them) will have no qualms about calling Powell a "traitor" or otherwise impugning his motives (perhaps suggesting that he's "auditioning for a spot in the next administration," as they did of Clarke.) They will do this despite eight years of statements praising Powell and treating him as a Republican hero, and they will do it without irony, because they are convinced that Americans can only remember back as far as last week.

The third, and most pernicious, response will be overtly stated by only a few, but "subtly" alluded to by many more. Those people will point out a fact about Powell that is obvious on the surface- he is a black man. Then, they will remind people that the presidential candidate he is supporting is a black man, too (or at least not white- concepts like mixed-race backgrounds tend to be a bit 'nuanced" for a lot of people). And they will go on to say that Powell's endorsement doesn't matter because, after all, that one commonality is the only reason he is endorsing Obama. Powell's previous political convictions will have little bearing on their statements of "fact." After all, to many, black people who support the Republican party, like Powell, Clarence Thomas, and Condoleezza Rice, tend to be regarded as independent thinkers only as long as they stay "in house" and parrot the party line. Once they cross that line they fall into the category of all those other black people who traditionally vote as Democrats- narrowly self-interested and racist.
If you think I'm being cynical (or "playing the race card") you can be excused and forgiven- but only if you haven't been paying attention to what's been going on around the country in the last several months. Obama's campaign has been an eye-opener in that it has shown just how far America has come with regards to civil rights- in the grand scheme of things, forty years from Jim Crow to a possible black president is astounding, and something the country should be proud of. It has also shown how much farther many people still have to go. One needn't even argue that references to Obama as being "different from us," and as "having different values" are subtly racist when we have plenty of examples of good, old-fashioned, OVERT racism to choose from in the last several weeks- from the mock-up Food Stamps picturing a watermelon-eating Obama to videos of people making statements like "I'm afraid the blacks will take over." In an environment like that, do I think Powell's endorsement will believed by many people to be reflective only of his racial interests rather than by any reasoned understanding of his policy goals? Of course I do.

In order to see what Powell's endorsement "means," we are going to have to watch and see what it "means" about Republicans, because it, frankly, means little for Democrats. I am curious to see how accurate my predictions are, and intend to post with a follow-up in the next few days. I'm feeling pretty confident, having predicted to my friends and family both the references to "Joe the Plumber" and the use of the phrase "class warfare" in the last debate. But don't confuse "confident," with "happy." That will only come if, in two weeks, CNN's electoral map proves to be prescient.

© 2008, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.

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