THE BLOG
11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Powell Endorsement

I was on CNN this morning to discuss Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama this weekend. You can watch the clip here. I made the point that the endorsement is far more of a blow to John McCain than a big plus for Obama.

For McCain, Powell abandoning the GOP ship shows a significant portion of the Establishment believes he is going to lose, and that sense of inevitability is going to make it even harder for him to climb back into this race. For Obama, Powell's endorsement gives him a small bump thanks to Powell's incisive criticism of McCain, but it doesn't give him a huge positive boost on deeper foreign policy issues because Powell has destroyed his own credibility with his now-discredited United Nations speech - the one he knew was chock full of lies, the one that led us into the Iraq War, and the one he refuses to apologize for, even as it remains the single most humiliating and destructive act in contemporary diplomatic history.

As I told CNN, what's far more intriguing - and potentially troubling - is what Obama's own embrace of Powell means in terms of policy. Obama used his own opposition to the war - the war that Colin Powell helped start - as a contrast point in the Democratic primary and in the general election. He is campaigning on a promise to end the war. What does Powell's endorsement of Obama say about those promises? According to newspapers this morning, it may actually say a lot.

The Associated Press reports that "Powell will have a role as a top presidential adviser in an Obama administration, the Democratic White House hopeful said Monday." Obama told NBC News Powell will "have a role as one of my advisers" and held out the possibility of a formal White House or Cabinet role. He also asked Powell to publicly campaign with him.

For the millions of Americans supporting Obama because of his opposition to the war, this is disconcerting, to say the least.

As CNN reported yesterday, Powell remains totally unrepentant both about his own critical role pushing us to war. For instance, he claims to have tried to stop the war, five years after giving the single most important (and discredited) speech in building the public case for war. He now claims he wants to see the war end, but it's difficult to trust the integrity of a man who denies even the most basic facts of his public involvement in creating the crisis in the first place. That Obama now seems to reflexively trust Powell suggests not foreign policy prudence from the Democratic nominee, but knee-jerk ignorance - and worse, a potential to abdicate the very antiwar themes he's run on for so long.

Clearly, Powell is in this for Powell. He sees that McCain is losing, he'd like to be relevant once again, and so he's glomming onto the Obama candidacy. And it's obvious that what's pushing Obama closer to Powell is the Establishment noise machine. Though polls show the public seeing Powell as superficially positive, there is no evidence he commands any serious grassroots following at all. That said, he is revered among professional pundits, reporters and politicians for his supposed Seriousness and Respectability (whatever that means). Indeed, the Wall Street Journal today has a good rundown of how the commentariat is celebrating Powell's foreign policy "credibility" and writing Powell's humiliating behavior out of history. Even worse, Democratic politicians are claiming - without evidence, of course - that Powell has some huge following in battleground states.

As a journalist, it sickens me that our power-worshiping press corps refuses to report the basic facts of Powell's record (though I give CNN's John Roberts credit - he made this point explicitly this morning). Really - once the Establishment graces a figure with the aura of "credibility," is there anything that figure can do (say, lead us into a war based on lies) to have that "credibility" revoked?

That said, as a progressive, I don't fault Obama for trying to capitalize on those fabricated memes about Powell, and use them in the context of the campaign. He's got 15 days until the election, and any short-term boost is a good thing.

What I worry about is the day after the election. I am concerned about a President Obama internalizing that Establishment fantasy about Colin Powell the Serious and Credible Voice - and ignoring the actual fact-based story about Colin Powell, the Most Discredited Foreign Policy Voice In Contemporary American History. We don't need another president who refuses to live in the "reality-based world" - we need a president who matches his campaign promises on critical issues like the Iraq War with an understanding of which voices will be the most reliable in making those promises a reality.