(The Root) — Last week, four-star retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Barack Obama's re-election bid. Powell, a lifelong Republican, broke with his party ranks for the second time, having chosen Obama over fellow veteran John McCain in 2008.
Powell waited until after the candidates' foreign policy debate to make the announcement, observing that President Obama got us "out of one war, started to get us out of a second war and did not get us into any new wars." On Mitt Romney, Powell was reticent: "The governor who was saying things at the debate … was saying things that were quite different from what he said earlier. I'm not quite sure which Gov. Romney we'd be getting with respect to foreign policy."
Powell — who first supported the war in Iraq but left the Bush administration after its failure to find weapons of mass destruction — is a proven statesman and war hero. "I don't sense he's thought through these things as thoroughly as he should have," Powell said of Romney.
He also highlighted President Obama's success in saving a diving economy and Romney's lack of a fiscal plan beyond tax cuts that favor the wealthy. As for his party affiliation, Powell said, "I'm a Republican of a more moderate mold. That's something of a dying breed, I'm sorry to say."
Despite Powell's reasonable, well-articulated explanation, John Sununu, co-chair of the Romney campaign, abruptly concluded that Powell endorsed Obama simply because both men are black.
"When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that's an endorsement based on issues or whether he's got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama," Sununu told CNN. When asked to expound, he continued, "I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States — I applaud Colin for standing with him."
Mary Curtis wrote this week in the Washington Post that Sununu's reaction was to "reduce two complex men to skin color. Sununu can disagree with Obama because of policy, but when Powell supports him, it has to be race."
Enter the race card — played by old white men in the Republican Party.
The condescending nature of Sununu's comments aside, it speaks to a mindset in the modern GOP, and one that is having measurable effects on the 2012 election — namely, white males are voting against the president in record numbers, and race seems to be the only explanation.
Sununu, of course, has little credibility or integrity. In 1991 he was forced to resign as White House chief of staff under then-President George H.W. Bush after press reports that Sununu had abused taxpayer dollars by using government jets for ski and golf trips, as well as other personal use, while classifying the travel as official business.
Besides a weakness for the high life, Sununu also has a penchant for race-baiting and Birtherism. He called the president "lazy" in an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell and was recorded just a few months ago saying that Obama needed to "learn how be an American." (It's a curious statement, considering that Sununu himself is only a naturalized citizen of the U.S. — born in Cuba to parents of Palestinian descent.)
Sununu even doubled down on his initial allegations in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, claiming that President Obama "has created more racial division than any administration in history." Though these comments seem extreme, they express a sentiment that has become mainstream in conservative political circles and is having real effects.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that Romney enjoys the support of white males over President Obama by a margin of 2-to-1: 65 percent to 32 percent. In 2008 Obama lost the white-male vote by 16 points, based on exit polls, which means that his lack of support among white men has doubled.
And among working-class whites without college degrees, President Obama trails Romney 58 percent to 35 percent. Why does it matter? White males made up 36 percent of the total electorate in the last presidential contest, and whites in general made up 74 percent of all voters.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, told CBS News that many white American males "believe the economic policies of Democrats have benefited somebody else — not them. Women, minorities, interest groups. They don't feel Democrats have championed the interests of white-male voters in modern times as they did in the days of Roosevelt and Truman."
So if you're Romney, dedicated to using nostalgic references that cast you as Ronald Reagan defeating one-term President Jimmy "Barack" Carter, then manipulating white Americans to vote along racial lines is a winning strategy. Why would surrogates like Sununu knowingly sow the seeds of racial animus and divisiveness? The answer can be found in the outcome.
Romney maintains his lead among white voters, even though nearly 50 percent of them believe that he would do more to favor the wealthy than the poor and middle class. And according to a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press, in the past four years the number of Americans who express explicit anti-black attitudes has increased from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 percent today. Implicit racial bias — the kind that people may neither admit nor realize they harbor — increased sharply from 49 percent to 56 percent. Survey respondents used Sununu's word, "lazy," and other words, like "violent," to describe African Americans and Hispanics.
It doesn't take a rigorous education in America's racialized political history to see that propaganda like that used by Sununu has a direct effect on how the wider populace perceives President Obama — and black people in general. Andrew Sullivan, a columnist at the Daily Beast, recently called this phenomenon a cold civil war and explained that it's been slowly brewing since Obama took office.
The AP report also revealed that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express explicit racial prejudice, by a margin of 79 percent to 32 percent. Indeed, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a white Republican and Powell's former chief of staff, told MSNBC's Ed Schultz last week that the GOP is "full of racists."
Party leaders — and campaign officials — can neither ignore these survey results nor deny any responsibility for having created them. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Donald Trump, who race-bait to promote their own personal, partisan agendas, Sununu is a chairman of the Romney presidential campaign. His behavior can be seen only as an explicit strategy. Even later, when Sununu released a statement clarifying his ill-conceived words, there remained no apology — and not a word, at all, from Romney himself.
It seems that when the ultimate prize is the Oval Office, national unity, racial harmony and democratic ideals are welcome casualties.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.