The Powell endorsement isn’t all that surprising, and like most endorsements it will have no meaningful electoral effect (especially in an election that is almost certainly over), but it is worth considering for what it says about Obama, Powell and the GOP’s encouragement of media adulation over Powell over the years. As James says, Powell is actually a very conventional figure, and he is also very much an establishmentarian. Even in his call for a “transformational figure,” he is expressing an establishmentarian hope not so much of transformation but of restoration of establishment credibility. Obama is consensus-oriented and accommodating enough to entrenched interests that he offers the best chance of repairing some of the damage that national political institutions and officials, including Powell himself, have done. If Obama represents the “sanctification of the status quo,” Powell is one of many establishment figures hoping to participate in that so-called sanctification.
Powell is a good representative of the moderate-to-liberal Republican Obama voter, and almost the only thing in terms of policy separating him from the Gilchrests and Chafees is that he was a prominent war supporter. That’s a very significant difference, but it is much more muted now. Otherwise, he fits the profile of a moderate Republican foreign policy “realist” pushed away by the aggressive posture of McCain and his advisors and the social moderate alienated by social conservatism and vulgar Americanism. Many of the same social issues that mobilize most rank-and-file conservatives and which acquired such importance in the presentation of Palin as VP nominee are the very issues that have always made Powell an odd fit with the modern GOP and were at the heart of intra-conservative strife over his possible (but never terribly likely) ’96 run. So long as Powell stayed out of domestic politics, the GOP encouraged the media’s creation of Powell as the personification of officially approved, “respectable” Republicanism. For his admirers in the press, Powell was Giuliani without the authoritarian impulses and cruelty; for many conservatives, Powell and, at least until this decade, his Doctrine were examples of the GOP’s credibility on national security.
Now one of their military media darlings has abandoned their other military media darling at the last moment, simultaneously endorsing the (mostly accurate) narrative of a GOP consumed by triviality and bitterness and implying that the party has ceased to be credible on national security, so Republicans are understandably annoyed. That Powell himself was instrumental in making the GOP less credible on national security is conveniently ignored by all sides. Indeed, one might wonder why Obama would want an endorsement from Powell, who receives the same kind of curious treatment that McCain has received for most of his career until very recently: yes, he misled the public at a crucial time, and it’s true that he failed to voice the doubts about the war that he had strongly enough, but what really matters is that he had doubts. Just as McCain’s discomfort telling the whoppers that he nonetheless goes on telling proves that he is somehow a great leader, Powell’s private, unexpressed doubts that might have helped avoid calamity if they had been expressed absolve him of everything he did.
One reason why some Republicans are insisting that the endorsement was primarily a matter of racial solidarity is that it helps to avoid Powell’s critiques of the campaign and of the party, even when those critiques might be refuted. It is easier and therefore better at this point in the campaign to dismiss it by saying, “Race is all that matters here.” It might be that for some Republicans it is genuinely inconceivable that a retired general and former diplomat would throw his support to Obama, as these are the same people who have tried to make Obama out to be a neo-McGovernite peacenik, but it should probably tell them something about where they have gone wrong that Obama keeps racking up such endorsements. Having invested so much in Obama-as-radical-maniac, Republicans are missing the temperamental similarities between Obama and Powell. Likewise, Obama’s admirers are probably consciously ignoring those same similarities to the extent that they imply that Obama, like Powell, will go along with prevailing wisdom and establishment consensus, because that is not what they expect from Obama. Republicans also seem to think that the phrase, ”the Surge is working! the Surge is working!” is a mantra straight out of Oz that will magically transport them back to the salad days of 2002, so they remain baffled by the idea that Obama’s fairly modest withdrawal plan might be appealing to someone like Powell. The inability, or the simple refusal, to admit that the Iraq war was a costly, disastrous mistake has been dragging down the GOP for the last three years, so there’s no reason anything would change now.
Domestically, there’s nothing remarkable about Powell’s opposition to more conservative justices on the Court–on several of the litmus test questions, Powell does not agree and never has agreed with conservative concerns. This is not of the same kind as the pro-lifer’s negative argument for not backing McCain (he might not appoint conservative justices and wouldn’t be able to get them confirmed by a Democratic majority Senate even if he did). This is an expression of a genuine preference for the sort of appointments that Obama would make. Again, this sounds unbelievable to many on the right, who conclude that Powell couldn’t possibly believe that, as if it were impossible for a social moderate to find the preoccupation with overturning Roe to be unsatisfying. Of course, either anti-McCain pro-lifers are right or Powell is, since part of his resistance to McCain is premised on the assumption that conservative justices are guaranteed after a McCain victory.