The Case of Colin Powell


Let us consider Colin Powell’s stated reasons for endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential bid in a spirit of charity. Let us assume that Gen. Powell’s decision has nothing to do with race, nothing to do with Obama’s lead in the polls, and nothing to do with any desire by the general to cover his left flank.

The reasons Powell offered for his endorsement are, after all, reasons that a lot of other people are also supporting Senator Obama. His critics would say that this conjunction is no accident: that Powell is in this episode reflecting the conventional wisdom, as he has in many others. But the thoughts and sentiments that make up the conventional wisdom would not do so unless some intelligent people adopted them, and so they ought to be examined for whatever merits they may have.

Powell began his case on Meet the Press by noting that since the financial crisis hit the front pages Sen. John McCain has been “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.” The second part of the sentence is a bit hyperbolic, but who could deny the first part? But then, who could deny that Senator Obama has had little to contribute, either? He never took a position on the AIG bailout, for example, and showed no leadership, pro or con, on the Treasury Department’s financial-rescue plan. His distinctive contribution to the discussion of the issue has been a vapid and sometimes demagogic attack on deregulation. His economic agenda beyond the financial crisis includes tax increases and feints toward protectionism, neither of which will strengthen the economy.

The general then moved to McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, whom Powell pronounced unready to be president. That is a reasonable point of view. But is it really a very strong reason to prefer Obama to McCain? There are, after all, readiness questions about Obama as well, questions that Powell answers merely by invoking Obama’s “intellectual vigor”: an element of readiness rather than the thing itself. The more you value experience and demonstrated leadership, the less attractive Obama should be.

Powell suggested that he would not welcome two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but left the point hanging. It is not clear why he would view that prospect with dismay. Does he object to Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts for allowing democratic supermajorities to prohibit partial-birth abortion? If so, he is of course entitled to his views, but there is no reason for most voters to concur in them.

The rest of Powell’s reasons for preferring Obama concerned the way the two candidates have campaigned. McCain, he says, has run a “narrow” campaign. He has brought up such allegedly irrelevant issues as Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers. And he has allegedly permitted unnamed Republicans to suggest falsely that Obama is a Muslim and that he should therefore not be elected.

Here again let us give Powell the benefit of the doubt. McCain’s campaign has not been terribly edifying. McCain’s discussion of the Ayers issue is incoherent in just the way Powell says it is: It makes no sense to dismiss it as a matter of one “washed-up old terrorist” and then run ads about it. There are sleazy and false e-mails going around about Obama’s background — although Powell overstates how involved Republican officials are in this rumor-mongering.

But here again Powell’s reasoning seems defective. Obama’s campaign has not been the idealistic affair it pretends to be, particularly in the last few weeks as it has run ad after ad misrepresenting McCain’s health-care plan. The number of houses McCain owns has been a common Democratic talking point: Does Powell believe it a key consideration in this election? Nasty, false, and irrelevant claims about McCain have found no shortage of takers on the Internet, and a lot of Democratic rhetoric, including that of Senator Obama, seems clearly designed to portray McCain as senile.

Even if it were true that McCain’s campaign was notably worse than Obama’s in any of these regards, moreover, would that really be a good enough reason to choose Obama as president? Is anyone who thinks that George H. W. Bush’s capture-the-flag campaign in 1988 was less than inspiring therefore committed to the view that Michael Dukakis would have made a better commander-in-chief? Surely not. Powell seems to be elevating form over substance here.

Commentators are saying that Powell’s endorsement of Obama will quiet voters’ doubts about the candidate. But Powell’s words, like those of his chosen candidate, cannot survive careful scrutiny.