Sunday, October 19, 2008

Colin Powell’s GOP Payback

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s endorsement of Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama was a mere formality. Powell pretty much hinted that Obama would get the nod from him when he repeatedly dropped glowing and admiring words about Obama over the past few months. Powell’s stated motive for breaking with GOP ranks and endorsing Obama is by now standard stuff. He’ll put a fresh, new, or as Powell called it “transformational” face on America’s much bruised and maligned foreign policy.
There’s no reason to doubt that Powell endorsed Obama for that reason. But in another sense his endorsement is a bitter sweet payback for the harsh, odd man out treatment he got from some within the Bush administration and from others in the GOP.
Despite his impeccable military credentials, unwavering party loyalty, towering prestige, and diplomatic savvy, Powell always stirred unease, even deep furor in the bowels of many conservative Republicans. They were never awestruck by the general's bars, commanding personality, and public popularity. That first surfaced when Powell made some soundings that he might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Pat Buchanan and a strong contingent of conservative groups were appalled.
They sternly warned that they would make "war" on him if he were really serious about grabbing the nomination. If Powell had ignored their threat and charged ahead in his bid for the party's nomination they would have pounded him for backing affirmative action and abortion rights. They would have dredged up the charge that he did not take Saddam Hussein out when he had the chance as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs during the Gulf War. The general got their message and quickly opted not to seek the nomination. As it turned out, they hammered him with the soft-on-Hussein charge anyway.
Even so, Reagan, Bush Sr., Gerald Ford, William Buckley and nearly every other Republican big wig were star struck enough with the general's magnetism and perceived popularity that they still wanted him on the Republican ticket. They remembered that in some opinion polls, Powell actually made it a horserace in a head to head contest with President Clinton. They figured that as the party's vice-presidential candidate he could breathe some life into the stillborn campaign of Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996 while not alienating the party's hard liners.
This was the stuff of delusion. If Powell had actually chosen to run he would have been under the most savage scrutiny of any candidate in American presidential history. The public and press on foreign and domestic policy issues would have mercilessly grilled him. Powell would have been forced to answer the same tough questions and face the same objections as the Republican vice-presidential candidate as he would have as a presidential candidate. And Republican hard rightists would have objected just as strongly to the prospect of Powell being one heartbeat away from the presidency.
The talk of Powell as Republican VP candidate fizzled just as fast as the talk of Powell as presidential candidate did. In 2000, Powell knew that the same Republican rightists still itched to pick a fight with him. He quickly scotched any talk about a Republican presidential candidacy. The Secretary of State post was a much better deal. It gave him a high political profile without the risk of stirring the rancor of the right. As a Bush cabinet nominee, rather than a presidential candidate, Powell would implement, not make, policy. This supposedly kept him out of political harm's way.
But this also proved to be the stuff of delusion. The battle within the Bush administration between Iraq war hawks Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice over the war and the terrorism fight has been well-documented. Powell’s diplomacy first tact, his deep understanding that a unilateral too aggressive military policy posed the dire risk of a terrible blowback to U.S. security, and his personal inclinations that Saddam Hussein was largely an impotent, contained dictator who had absolutely nothing to do with the terrorism threat was anathema to the hardliners. They still demanded that he vigorously and enthusiastically help beat the administration's war-drum policy. It was a bitter pill for Powell to swallow, but swallow he did.
He dutifully put a respected face on Bush war doctrine. Even so, he was still closely watched for any hint of deviation from Bush's foreign policy line. This would have brought more howls from conservatives for the general’s head.
Powell survived but not without scars. The lies, deceptions, and staggering human cost of the Iraq war that Powell sadly shilled for tainted his legacy of admired, even revered public military and foreign policy service.

Powell’s Obama presidential endorsement then is much more than an endorsement. It’s a chance to buff a bit of the taint away as well as a nose thumb for past GOP scorn. Payback, if you will.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).