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The Impact of Powell's Endorsement

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama over the weekend on NBC's Meet the Press. There had been a lot of speculation that Powell would endorse personal friend and fellow Republican John McCain, give only a lukewarm endorsement of Barack Obama, or not publicly endorse anyone at all. However, Powell's endorsement made major news because it was not only thorough and forceful in favor of Obama, but also scathing in its criticism of John McCain, Sarah Palin, and the Republican Party.

Normally, endorsements don't matter much because, after all, in a democracy, the vote of the opinion leader has just as much weight as the vote of the average person at a local diner. But Powell's endorsement may be a bit more significant for several reasons.

To start, Powell is a Republican. Anytime a person endorses a candidate of another party, it's news. This is why Joe Lieberman's support of John McCain and Chuck Hagel's support of Barack Obama were such a big deal. Being endorsed by a high profile Republican allows Obama to tout his appeal to a wide variety of voters, regardless of their political leanings. John McCain has talked about bipartisanship before, but now Barack Obama can say that he actually practices it. This is why Powell's support of Obama matters more than McCain's support from other Republican Secretaries of State like James Baker and Henry Kissinger.

Secondly, this endorsement puts Obama back in the headlines. After the debate, McCain was beginning to gain a bit of traction with "Joe the Plumber" and Obama's "spread the wealth" comment. For McCain to win this election, he needs to dominate the daily news cycle like he did during the first half of September. When you dominate the news cycle, you get free air time at the expense of your opponent. Barack Obama raised a stunning $150 million in September, so he certainly doesn't need the free advertising. And because the election is in two weeks, there is not a lot of time left for McCain to turn his campaign around. The Powell endorsement is on the first page of the major newspapers and has been the lead story on the morning news programs today. That's one more day of media coverage that the McCain campaign can't get back.

Third, Powell's indictment of his fellow Republicans and their rhetoric of race-based, religion-based, and patriotism-based insinuations speaks directly to disaffected Republicans who would rather not vote for Obama, but are disappointed with their own party. The unnecessary mentioning of Obama's middle name, the impugning of his patriotism, and the attempts to cloak him as "not one of us" is very off-putting to a significant segment of the electorate. Powell is essentially telling these disenchanted Republicans and conservative-leaning independents that they aren't alone in their sentiments and that it's okay to support Obama as a means of sending the Republican Party a message that it is veering too far off track. Barack Obama would be wise not to overestimate his support because even though the bulk of it likely comes from pro-Obama voters and solid Democrats, a significant portion of his support also comes from anti-Republican Republicans who may revert to their traditional partisan leanings in 2012 or even in 2008 if McCain changes the tone of his campaign in their minds.

And of course, Powell represents the latest high-profile Republican to come out against Sarah Palin. Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, George Will, and William F. Buckley Jr. have all concluded that Palin is not qualified. Sarah Palin has created a schism within the Republican Party that is pitting ideological Republicans against partisan Republicans. John McCain will have great difficulty winning this election without a united Republican Party behind him. At this stage of the game, it's not just about getting Republicans to come home and support McCain. It's about getting Republicans to drag other Republicans to the polls or to field offices to volunteer. Powell's criticisms represent yet another impediment to this objective.

Although Obama has largely acquitted himself in the eyes of voters in terms of his heft and command of the issues courtesy of the three presidential debates, his greatest weakness has been the leadership quotient. While Obama has indeed made great progress in this regard, being validated by Powell serves to reassure voters in a way that Obama himself could never do. This endorsement blunts the impact of the William Ayers attacks and also helps answer the loaded question of who Obama is.

Some people may try to diminish Powell's endorsement as one Black man supporting another. However, this is problematic for two reasons: 1) Nobody says much when a White person endorses a White person, so it makes it sound like race is only an issue when non-Whites are involved, and 2) Colin Powell is one of the rare individuals of color who is not primarily seen in racial terms. Other people who fall into this category include Oprah Winfrey (the influential television personality), Will Smith (the respected actor), and Michael Jordan (the king of basketball). Nobody would put Colin Powell in the same group as Whoopi Goldberg (the Black comedian), Clarence Thomas (the Black conservative), and 50 Cent (the Black musician). In other words, Colin Powell is more likely to be addressed by his military or cabinet-level experience, rather than his race. So one can't reduce his endorsement to race-based politics without disrespecting his record of public service and ignoring his cross-racial appeal.

Another criticism of this endorsement may stem from the fact that Powell tarnished his legacy by selling the faulty intelligence about Iraq to the United Nations. However, Powell was clearly reluctant to do so and may view his endorsement of Obama as "a transformational figure" as a final step in his journey of clearing his conscience. Powell's support of Obama is similar to that of Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel in that they have both shifted from being forceful advocates of the war to strident critics. One can't criticize Powell without criticizing Hagel and even Joe Biden, who ended up as Obama's running mate. And of course, the idea that the only people who can support Obama are those who have always been against the war is silly because Obama's appeal extends far beyond Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold.

Regardless, at the very least, this endorsement temporarily drowns out McCain and his message while also portraying him and the Republican Party in an unflattering light. Even if nobody remembers this endorsement on November 4, the longer this story consumes the headlines and political talk shows right now, the easier it becomes for Obama to run out the clock. And the fact that Colin Powell is one of the rare statesmen who is well known and respected by people of all political parties makes this endorsement matter considerably more significant. McCain was gracious about not receiving Powell's support, but his campaign was clearly hurt by it.

3 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Nice Post AP

Being Republican, I have not been to happy with how this election has turned out. I am not particularly religious.

I cannot stand the fact that we cater to the extreme right.
Religion does not matter anymore. A catholic church here in Omaha has Obama/Biden sign out front. Why? Catholic's have lost the abortion argument. But they are embracing the notion of democrat's "rob from the rich to feed the poor"

This is THE issue of this race. The economy. This is what I want. This is what millions of others want.

Bush and the Dems have effectively doubled out hole with this 200+ bailout package and talking of more stimulus. Our next president will have a 1 BILLION dollar hole in the ground.

I am against the government buying stock in private banks.

All i hear from republicans it "terrorist." McCain picked the wrong person. He has to real in his own campaign so that they are not to negative.

I glad that Powell spoke out. Its puts a big stamp on what is wrong with my party.

Norris Hall said...

Is it about race?
Only one person knows for sure…and that’s Powell.
Powell claims that he’s not happy with the “rightward shift” of the Republican party.
Any merit in his accusation???
Listen to Republican Senator Michelle Bachmann
Click to watch Senator Michelle Bachmann’s interview
So...what do you think??. Is Powell just imagining things?

DB said...

Your whole analysis is accurate as far as one who is critical of McCain and Republican policies. But those who are not are making this about race, as you clearly know from the circus on my blog lol. As long as they make this a racial issue, they will be ignoring the reasons Powell gave for his decision. Powell is simply regurgitating everything pissed off moderates have been saying for months!

You mean Christopher Buckley in para 6? Have you read his satirical books "Boomsday" or "Supreme Courtship"? Hilarious!

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