Commentary Magazine


Enter Powell?

I have a problem understanding Michael Crowley‘s obsession with the possible Colin Powell endorsement of Barak Obama’s.

Here’s Crowley at TNR:

Colin Powell. He could decide this election if he wanted to.

And Crowley again, quoting readers’ reaction:

Another reader suggests a joint Powell-Hagel endorsement, to diminish any sense that Powell was simply siding with the black candidate.

To be fair to Crowley, the fascination with the Powell political mystery is hardly his alone. Days before the Democratic convention, Bill Kristol was making headlines by claiming that Powell would endorse Obama soon. Around the same time, Nate Silver was hypothesizing (though quite skeptically) about the possibility of Powell as Obama’s VP.

I find all this excitement over Powell’s future career moves to be quite puzzling. True, in 2004, when he ended his negligible tour as Secretary of State with no accomplishments to show for it, his approval rating was high. His enigmatic coolness has a way of resonating with voters who don’t actually bother to look into the actual deeds of the leader. I think his popularity is attributable to the fact that he did nothing, was hardly influential and parted with an unpopular president–but not in a confrontational way. Thus, he was able to enjoy the approval of both Republicans, seeing him as part of the team, and Democrats, believing he was the sane voice in a crazed administration.

So–can Powell really help Obama if and when he chooses to publicly support the ticket? To believe that you have to believe three things:

1. Endorsements have importance. Powell supporting Obama is not exactly the same as Powell running with Obama.

2. Powell can sway the right group of people. It’s fair to think that Powell’s fans are people in the middle. He isn’t as popular on the far Left (the Iraq speech) or the far-right (his overall nothingness as policy maker).

3. That his endorsement will not suffer any setbacks. He can be seen as an African-American supporting Obama because of race, or be in a position in which he will have to defend his reputation against attacks from people who can actually present to the public the facts about his tenure.

All in all, Powell is the master of having the good name–but the way he did it was to almost always stay away from political controversy. Powell was always a promising candidate–but he never ran. Maybe he does understand his limitations and realize that he can’t stomach real scrutiny and the viciousness of political life. Maybe he just enjoys being popular with everybody.

Will he choose to step right into the political abyss this time around? Since I have no sources who can give me an answer to this question, I’ll assume that he is considering such a move – and that he will only do it if he is really convinced that Obama will be the next president (thus, making his endorsement mean even less than it does today) . Of course, Powell can surprise and take the more daring gamble, but this might carry a price that I’m not sure Powell is willing to risk: if Obama eventually loses, it will be the end of the Powell-power legend.