After the long and careful deliberation we've come to expect from him in other matters, Colin Powell announced his preference for president this morning. Powell, a Republican who served the Reagan administration before acting as Joint Chiefs Chairman in the Bush #41 administration and Secretary of State in the Bush #43 administration, has known Sen. John McCain for more than 25 years and has praised McCain, a fellow former comrade in arms, for his service in the military and in the Senate.
Today he endorsed Barack Obama for president.
Interviewed by Tom Brokaw on NBC's "Meet the Press," Powell called Obama “a transformational figure” who would be an “exceptional” leader. “I truly believe that at this point in America’s history we need a president who will not just continue ... basically the policies we have followed in recent years,” he said. “We need a president with transformational qualities.”
“I will be voting for Barack Obama.”
"He has both style and substance," Powell said. "He has met the standard of being president."
One GOP flack, talking to Politico.com, used the customary first-reflex characterization: Powell's endorsement "is the nail in the coffin." That metaphor, however, overlooks a fact of the last two or three months: With a variety of actions by the candidate, the campaign and its proxies in the 527 groups, Team McCain has been pretty good at putting nails in the coffin from inside the coffin.
Powell expressed concern at the missteps of McCain, especially the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for a running mate; Obama character assassinations on the campaign trail; the insubstantial ties of Obama to Weather Underground bomber William Ayers; the shadowy attempt to link Obama to terrorists; the McCain campaign's inconsistent approach to dealing with the economy; and the sub rosa racial innuendos meant to appeal to those voters for whom race isn't just one factor in the campaign but the only factor.
"In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to deal with the economic problems that we were having and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem," Powell said. "And that concerned me, sensing that he didn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had. And I was also concerned at the selection of Governor Palin.
"She's a very distinguished woman, and she's to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made."
Powell said Obama "displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well."
Powell, of course, is only the latest apostate. Conservative radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish backed Obama last week, and so did conservative columnist Christopher Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and an icon of the modern conservative movement. Buckley fils was roundly condemned by his action, and all but run out of the National Review building.
Powell perfectly distilled the reasons behind the growing conservative defections today.
"I've also been disappointed, frankly, by some of the approaches that Senator McCain has taken recently, or his campaign ads, on issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about," Powell said. "This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign. But Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him?
"And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted. What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate."
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There's already been blowback from the most ardent figures on the conservative right. George Will, the tireless conservative apologist columnist (representing the sherry sippers of Georgetown); and Rush Limbaugh, the talk-radio Doberman and former pharmaceutical enthusiast (representing the NASCAR-and-barbecue wing) lit into Powell in short order, suggesting that Powell's endorsement had more to do with race than with principle. We can expect more of this in the next week, as the news of Powell's stand trickles around the country, and the first of the daily tracking polls determine whether it makes any difference.
But the endorsement of the man still revered as an embodiment of the American success story will be hard to spin or ignore.
The McCain campaign has already tried using raw numbers to minimize the damage done. "John McCain has been endorsed by more than 300 retired generals and admirals," a McCain spokesman told WWAY shortly after the general's endorsement (HuffPost report). "That's over 10 times more than what Senator Obama has received."
But this isn't about addition, or even multiplication; this is a matter for numbers expressed with supersets attached. Gravitas to the nth power, and Powell's still got it. Whether the McCain campaign and the conservatives generally like it or not.
"Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier," Colin Powell once observed.
So is a timely endorsement.