Monday, October 20, 2008

The Alternate Universe

At least two journalists have pointed to the unusual parallels between Colin Powell and John McCain as context for Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama (and repudiation of John McCain and the current configuration of the Republican party).

James Fallows:

Close contemporaries, born eight months apart; both headed toward military careers, but from very different starting points -- immigrants' son, versus son and grandson of admirals. Lives changed by the Vietnam War, including ultimately putting both on the track to top-level politics.

Powell declining to take what could have been a promising path to the Republican nomination in 2000; McCain trying hard for that nomination but losing out to a slime-rich campaign by GW Bush and Karl Rove. It was during a debate in this campaign that McCain delivered his famous and withering line directly to Bush's face, about his campaign's character-assassination ads. The line, spat out with more contempt than anything McCain later displayed toward Obama, was "You should be ashamed" -- and, when Bush tried to answer, "You should be ashamed."

After that, diverging arcs: Powell providing cover and legitimacy for the Bush-Cheney WMD argument in favor of the Iraq war, and despite acclaim for his record as Secretary of State clearly understanding how his historical standing had been diminished. McCain increasing his "maverick" reputation, before that term became a joke, right through his defense of John Kerry against the Bush-Rove Swift Boat ads in 2004.

And now the arcs reverse again. Powell, with his endorsement of Obama, taking a cleansing step not because he is endorsing a Democrat or the person who, instead of him, has a chance to become the first black President. But rather because Powell is at last free to say the many "Cut the crap!" things that his fealty to the Administration had kept him from saying publicly while in office or until now, ranging from the perverse effects of anti-Muslim hysteria to the dangers of scorched earth political campaigns.

The Economist:
Mr Powell's endorsement says more about John McCain than it does the Republican Party.

Mr Powell's explanation of his endorsement will be familiar to Democracy in America readers, but the source matters. Colin Powell, alone among Republicans, holds non-partisan and military credibility to match John McCain's. Like Mr McCain, Mr Powell's reputation suffered due to his association with George W Bush. Watching Mr Powell this morning, one can imagine it is Mr McCain's conscience critiquing the campaign.

Expect Republican commentators to focus on Mr Powell's stated concern for Mr McCain's judicial appointments as evidence of his estrangement. But as Mr McCain's nearest analog in American politics, Mr Powell's endorsement measures how far Mr McCain has strayed.
As Fallows notes:
Powell, tainted by his association with the Bush Administration, choosing at age 71 to restore his reputation for recognition of higher principles. McCain, who earlier opposed Bush tactics, choosing at age 72 a path that in the end is likely to bring him both defeat and dishonor. Maybe we need a Shakespeare to do this story justice.
I'm reminded a little of something poignant Michael Dukakis said earlier this year: "Look, I owe the American people an apology. If I had beaten the old man you’d have never heard of the kid and you wouldn’t be in this mess. So it’s all my fault and I feel that very, very strongly."

How does Colin Powell feel? John McCain couldn't beat back GWB and Karl Rove in 2000. It's conceivable that Powell might have. Instead, he legitimized Bush by agreeing to serve in his cabinet, then legitimized his push for war in Iraq by agreeing to make the case to the United Nations (which, by proxy, helped to make the case to moderates at home). If he hadn't helped the old man get into and out of the first Gulf War, and then helped the kid get into (but not out of) the second, we wouldn't be in this mess.

How would Colin Powell have responded to the events of September 11th? I don't know whether he asks himself that question. It's quite possible that he didn't run for President because he never wanted to ask himself a question like that. But he knows that it has all been a mistake. John McCain drew the opposite lesson, first with the war and then with the politics. Powell looks at McCain and sees the parts of himself he would rather never, ever see.

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