Categories: PJB Date: Oct 21, 2008 Title: Tribal Politics
Was race a factor in the decision of Colin Powell to repudiate his party's nominee and friend of 25 years, Sen. John McCain, two weeks before Election Day, and to endorse Barack Obama?
Gen. Powell does not deny it, contending only that race was not the only or decisive factor. "If I had only that fact in mind," he told Tom Brokaw, "I could have done this six, eight, ten months ago."
Yet, in hailing Barack as a "transformational figure" whose election would "electrify our country ... (and) the world," Powell seems to testify to the centrality of Barack's ethnicity to his decision.
For what else is there about this freshman senator, who has no significant legislative accomplishment, to transform our politics and to electrify the world, other than the fact that he would be the nation's first African-American president?
Powell's endorsement follows that of another African-American icon, Congressman John Lewis of Selma Bridge fame, who switched allegiance from Hillary to Barack, while Clinton still had a fighting chance to win.
When Lewis deserted her in February, he, too, claimed a Road-to-Damascus experience, to have seen a transformational figure:
"Something's happening in America, something some of us did not see coming ... Barack Obama has tapped into something that is extraordinary. ... It's a movement. It's a spiritual event."
Lewis' desertion, however, was not unrelated to a primary challenge in his Atlanta district and angry constituent demands to know why he was not backing the first black with a real chance at winning the White House.
Powell was under no such pressure. Hence, what he did, and why, are subjects of media and political speculation.
Understandably, Powell is being hailed by the Obama media as a profile in courage. Equally understandably, his endorsement of Obama is said by Republicans to smack of ingratitude, opportunism, and even vindictiveness toward a party to which he owes his fame and career.
Here was a man who was rendered extraordinary honors by three Republican presidents. Reagan raised him from Army colonel to national security adviser, the first African-American in the post. George H. W. Bush named him chairman of the Joint Chiefs, over hundreds of more senior officers. George W. Bush made him the first African-American secretary of state.
While he may have gotten well with the capital elite with this decision, Powell has wounded his party's nominee at a point of maximum vulnerability, a friend who supported him on the war, and agreed with Powell on the need for a larger invasion force. And Powell has embraced a liberal Democrat who owes his nomination to his fierce opposition to the war Powell sold the nation, a war Obama calls the worst blunder in U.S. history and a manifestation of a lack of judgment by those, like Colin Powell, who launched it.
Joe Biden, who voted to authorize the war, now calls his vote a mistake. Yet, Powell endorses him, too, while repudiating a McCain-Palin ticket that continues to defend his war.
And the scatter-gun attack Powell launched on the GOP ticket - hitting McCain for fumbling the financial crisis, choosing Sarah Palin, pressing Barack's association with William Ayers, and not defending Obama's Christianity - suggests a man with scores to settle with the party of George W. Bush.
Yet, what kind of Republican can Powell be when he professes deep concern that McCain might choose Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Sam Alito? Every Republican in the Senate voted for Roberts. All but one voted for Alito.
Does Colin Powell have a problem with Antonin Scalia? Is the general a Ruth Bader Ginsberg Republican?
There is speculation Powell feels badly used by the neocons who cherry-picked and hyped the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction he presented at the U.N., and that he harbors a distrust of the neocons now reassembling around McCain.
If so, he surely has a case, and should have made it.
But in the last analysis, one comes back to the forbidden issue of ethnicity. For example, would Powell have endorsed Hillary, had she won the nomination? After all, her views on Iraq - having supported the war and never apologized - are even closer to Powell's than Obama's.
The issue cannot be avoided.
After all, we are in a year where Obama defeated the wife of "our first black president," Bill Clinton, 90-10 in the black wards of Philly, and African-Americans, in one poll, are going 94-1 for Barack. And a Republican ticket that is hammering Barack on his ties to William Ayers fears to bring up his far closer ties to the Afro-racist anti-American Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Organizing a fundraiser last year for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, an Hispanic Democrat, Lionel Sosa of San Antonio, a political strategist for Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, said, "Blood runs thicker than politics."
Mr. Sosa is perhaps more candid about his motives than folks in D.C.