Colin Powell's decision to endorse Barack Obama has sparked a mini-debate of sorts over both the significance of the endorsement itself and the role that race has and will play during this campaign.
In the immediate aftermath of his appearance on Meet The Press, several prominent GOP officials - ranging from the established to the extreme - defined the announcement more by skin color than ideology.
The most crass interpretation came from talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who wrote the Politico's Jonathan Martin the following:
"Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race... OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."
Later in the day, Pat Buchanan echoed Limbaugh's refrain. "Alright, we gotta ask a question," he declared on MSNBC, "look would Colin Powell be endorsing Obama if he were a white liberal Democrat..."
The esteemed conservative columnist George Will did not go so far, but he did seek to explain the impact of Powell's decision as part of a larger, more psychological sway that Obama held over other African Americans.
There will be "some impact," Will declared. "And I think this adds to my calculation -- this is very hard to measure -- but it seems to me if we had the tools to measure we'd find that Barack Obama gets two votes because he's black for every one he loses because he's black because so much of this country is so eager, a, to feel good about itself by doing this, but more than that to put paid to the whole Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson game of political rhetoric."
There were, down the conservative line, other voices who gave credence to the race-over-politics theory. A prominent Republican attorney in Maine, Dan Billings, accused Powell of racism, stating: "If Obama was a white man, Powell would not have made the endorsement."
Certainly, it is hard to dismiss this element when the discussion surrounds a man who seemed en route -- if he simply wanted -- to becoming the first African American president and the individual who is poised to fulfill that possibility. But the argument (for all its condescending simplicity) seems to be missing the larger point. For starters, Powell has, in the past, endorsed a "white man" who was described as inexperienced -- George W. Bush in 2000. Mainly, however, the endorsement tells us more about how Obama's candidacy will be perceived among white voters than it says about the Illinois Democrat's African American support structure. As the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explains:
"Powell is a culturally individuated African American hero; to the extent that there remain white voters who have inchoate worries about Obama's race, it helps to have him associated with a man whose race they've already gotten over. I do think this cohort of people is tiny."
UPDATE: Notre Dame Professor Darren Davis, who specializes in the intersection of race and politics, writes in with his take on the Powell endorsement and the conservative reaction.
"There is nothing racially obvious about Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama. I have read Colin Powell's comments and he did not at anytime allude to race being a factor in his endorsement. I think what we are seeing is a sense of racial stereotyping of two ostensibly racially transcendent political figures. There has always been a stereotype that all black people will stick together. It seems that this is somewhat in play here, given that they only factor connecting Colin Powell and Barack Obama is race."
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