Powell Hurts Own Team

Washington Matters

Powell Hurts Own Team

I generally don't believe endorsements matter much. A little flash and sizzle to keep the news cycle chugging for another 24 hours. And when I heard Friday that former Secretary of State Colin Powell was likely to endorse Democrat Barack Obama on Meet the Press Sunday, I had no reason to change my mind. Powell is an influential figure and turning his back on his party is significant, but by waiting so long to let his mind be known -- and after the tide had turned squarely in Obama's direction -- it seemed like just a touch more frosting to a nearly finished cake.

I was wrong.

If John McCain has any chance of catching up with Obama in the next two weeks, it will only be by winning over the dwindling number of undecided independents and centrists and winning back some voters who are leaning toward Obama but are still nursing doubts. Powell -- one of a dwindling number of moderates left in the Republican Party -- seemed to be speaking directly to those voters when he didn't so much as endorse Obama as cut the legs out from under McCain, a friend of 25 years, and his own party. And Powell, as not just a Republican, but as a  former  member of the President Bush's Cabinet, may have done more in a half-hour interview than Obama and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden have done in more than two months of campaigning to tie McCain to the policies of the last eight years.

Powell's criticism of McCain wasn't just harsh, but undermined McCain's raison d'etre for his entire candidacy -- seasoned judgment and leadership in a crisis. Powell found that judgment sorely lacking when McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate ("I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States"). Ditto with the economic crisis. (McCain "didn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems.")

But he didn't stop there. Powell went after nearly every major tactic McCain and the GOP have used against Obama: trying to tie Obama to ex-Weather Underground bomber Bill Ayers is "demagoguery"; a whispering campaign that Obama is a muslim is "not America"; and while McCain has belittled Obama for saying he was willing to talk to leaders of America's enemies "without condition," Powell said a new and open diplomacy is exactly what is needed. "The president has to reach out to the world and show that there is a new president, a new administration that is looking forward to working with our friends and allies, and in my judgment, also willing to talk to people who we have not been willing to talk to before because this is a time for outreach."

Even Powell's praise of Obama's leadership abilities appeared to be a swipe at McCain's own style: On the campaign trail, 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." That confidence in Obama on what is widely regarded as his weakest point -- his slight experience in government and untested judgment -- by a widely respected and popular retired general and secretary of State could be especially important to shoring up Obama's standing with male voters -- especially white male voters, who tend to lean Republican. Obama has trailed McCain among men for most of the campaign, but has steadily been making gain in recent weeks and actually grabbed the lead away from McCain last week.

Powell also displayed little use for his party as a whole, either. "I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but that's what we'd be looking at in a McCain administration," he said. Even tougher, though, was Powell's assessment of the past nearly eight years of Republican rule in the White House -- every bit as dour and disapproving as Obama's. "I strongly believe that at this point in America's history, we need a president that will not just continue, even with a new face and with some changes and with some maverick aspects, who will not just continue, basically, the policies that we have been following in recent years. I think we need a transformational figure. I think we need a president who is a generational change."

Powell was one of the last potential bridges McCain might have been able to use to reach independents and moderates. But Powell, along with most Republican moderates in Washington, was virtually driven out of the party by its positions and its style -- and he took his bridge with him.