"Because I do what the facts tell me, Captain…"
- Capt. Richard Davenport from A Soldier's Play (1981)
The true importance of any political endorsement is debatable. But this one is big, since it involves America's most recognizable military hero declaring a preference that could help undecided centrist Republicans and independents make up their minds. Barack Obama himself took stock of the endorsement Sunday, fittingly, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg, the world's largest military installation: "Today I am beyond honored; I am deeply humbled to have the support of General Colin Powell."
Powell—former secretary of state, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, architect of Powell Doctrine and infantry combat officer in Vietnam—appeared on Meet the Press yesterday and declared his support for Obama's presidential bid. That Powell stepped forward to endorse Obama and not McCain, the candidate closer to him in age, party affiliation and career military service, underscores the stakes involved: the primacy, in Powell's opinion, of the United States "restoring a sense of purpose, a sense of confidence in the American people and, in the international community, in America."
As Obama widens his lead in most national polls over McCain, one of the remaining indecipherables is whether Obama's support among moderate swing voters will hold through Election Day, and whether or not the so-called "Bradley Effect"—a lower percentage of white voters actually voting for a black candidate than the percentage reflected in polling data—will influence the outcome of the election. But Powell, an African-American Republican respected by whites and blacks, and by Republicans and Democrats, provides Obama with the all-American imprimatur of trustworthiness among an important slice of the electorate that remains uncommitted.
The timing of Powell's endorsement, with just two weeks left before Election Day, suggests that Powell has been waiting, through the conventions and all of the debates, to see whether Obama or McCain would emerge as the more viable leader. "Over the last six or seven weeks, as both of them have really taken a final exam," Powell said, Obama has passed the test while McCain has not. Obama, he said, "has a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well."
In terms of the election horse race, it would be hard to overstate how effectively Obama's campaign endorsements have been deployed over the course of the campaign season: the early endorsements of Caroline Kennedy, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry lent instant Democratic Party credibility to Obama; during the height of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Gov. Bill Richardson's endorsement helped Obama turn the page within his own campaign narrative; and now, just when McCain seems to have found his core audience in the form of "Joe the Plumber," Obama can use Powell's endorsement to send the message that he, and not John McCain, is driving the conversation this year.
Powell was comprehensive in his explanation about how he arrived at his choice, preferring Obama's "intellectual vigor" to McCain's "maverick aspects." He told Meet the Press moderator Tom Brokaw he "would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court" that would result from a McCain presidency. Powell described McCain as a friend, but took him to task for making Bill Ayers a centerpiece of his campaign instead of engaging Americans on important policy issues. And Powell was unequivocal that Sarah Palin is unprepared to serve as vice president, and that McCain showed poor judgment by selecting her as his running mate.
Although most of Powell's remarks were fairly clinical—a clear-eyed and balanced assessment of the relative qualities of the two presidential candidates—perhaps the most moving portion of the interview was Powell expressing his dismay at the Republican campaign's willingness to impugn Muslims in this country with a broad brush. He challenged the repeated and incorrect labeling of Obama as a Muslim by his opponents as a way of portraying him as un-American, and asked, "Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" stating, "The answer is, no," before going on to describe his feelings about seeing a photo of the mother of Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery, refuting the destructive notion that being a Muslim is some kind of disqualifier to being a genuine, patriotic American.
A few weeks ago I polled my uncles, Vietnam veterans, on their perceptions of Barack Obama and John McCain as prospective commanders in chief. Their opinions varied on how war shaped their views on today's politics, but each of the them zeroed in on the difference between veterans who believe that America should exert its military power preemptively, and those whose experiences lead them to the conclude that war should be a last resort. In the broadest terms, Powell's support for Obama reflects that dichotomy.
We may hear cynical insinuations from the conservative commentariat that Powell's endorsement was predictable based on race. But Powell preempted this thinking, noting that with regard to the prospect of a first African American president, "all Americans should be proud, not just African Americans." The signature link between Powell and Obama is not race. It is their shared belief that even a superpower with the most capable and best equipped military in the world is wise to use its military power only after diplomacy has been applied and exhausted. It's an outlook that rejects the "attack first, discuss later" preemption doctrine (take note, Gov. Palin) espoused by the Bush administration and embraced by McCain.
If Americans elect Obama in November, Powell's endorsement won't be the primary reason. But because of who he is, and the strength of the case that he made for an Obama presidency, Powell's support for Obama will not only shape the final days of the campaign, but perhaps provide momentum for an Obama doctrine of governance, helping to define a key mission for whoever is the next president—strengthening the United States by reaching out to the world.