Did Race Sway Powell?

Washington Matters

Did Race Sway Powell?

Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama sparked another round in the debate over race and how much of a factor it will be in the presidential election -- not because of anything Powell said, but because critics from Rush Limbaugh to Patrick Buchanan, were quick to dismiss it as a case of African-Americans sticking together. 


In delivering his seven-minute statement on why he picked Obama over his longtime friend John McCain, Powell offered a complex mix of reasons why he thought Obama was ready and right for the country and why he was disappointed in McCain and the Republican Party as a whole. When NBC's Tom Brokaw asked Powell how he would answer those who were sure to say he made his decision on the basis of race, he said: "If I had only had that in mind, I could have done this six, eight, 10 months ago. I really have been going back and forth between somebody I have the highest respect and regard for, John McCain, and somebody I was getting to know, Barack Obama. And it was only in the last couple of months that I settled on this."

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Of course, it's surely as hard for Powell to separate race out entirely from the overall decision as it is for so many of the rest of us. But at the same time Powell, who had a long list of reasons for his decision, has spent years in power, observing and learning what it takes to succeed as president and commander in chief. Race may have had some role, but it's hugely insulting to him to suggest that race trumped all else.


Powell's endorsement and the reaction point yet again to the question that will be with us for years to come, no matter who wins this election. Determining the role of race is nearly impossible because it's so embedded in the culture of this country that it exists on some level, in some way, to some degree in all of us.


The conservative columnist George Will, who has had more than a few criticisms of the way John McCain has conducted himself in this campaign, estimates that when all is said and done, Obama will have gained two votes because of his race for every one vote he's lost. That may be true. Blacks favor Obama by over 90% and black turnout will be higher than ever before. And columnist Will postulates that some whites will also vote for Obama because it "feels good" to think we're not racists. Maybe, but again, I don't think it's all that simple.


Predicting how many votes Obama will lose because of race is no easier. The Associated Press did a complex poll aimed at ferreting out racial prejudice and concluded that race would cost Obama 6 percentage points on Election Day, though most if not all of it may already be factored into the polls.


Come Nov. 5, we'll know who won -- and undoubtedly many will draw conclusions from exit polls on how big a factor race turned out to be. These will be educated guesses, but they're unlikely to be conclusive. Even individual voters -- most, I'll bet -- would be hard-pressed to know for sure how race affected their own vote.


What's important is that the country move on and keep trying to heal the racial divide no matter who wins. That's also true of the divisions that separate us by religion, economic status, geographical area, views on social issues and of course by political party.


If Obama loses, there's a danger that his supporters of all colors will blame race and be angry and bitter, especially if there are disputes over voting day issues. It will take Obama's best leadership skills to channel that into a constructive force that doesn't get out of hand. If Obama wins, he'll have to reach out to form the coalitions needed to govern. McCain will have similar challenges and responsibilities.


It's a cliche to say that the problems facing the United States are too huge to allow more infighting, especially with great racial overtones. But cliches are often true. Voters, whomever they support, have made it clear that they want a change from business as usual. And it goes without saying that for the vast majority, that means a lot better than usual, not just different.