Is Obama Getting 'Colin-ized'?
Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to seek foreign policy advice from former Secretary of State Colin Powell has boosted the Democratic presidential hopeful in the eyes of Washington’s insider crowd, but the move suggests that Obama is positioning himself as a conciliator rather than a battler, which may unnerve the party’s “base.”
Powell remains a beloved figure among Washington pundits and journalists despite his controversial role in selling the Iraq invasion with a deceptive speech to the United Nations. Many insiders forgive Powell that transgression, in part, because they also clambered aboard the Iraq War bandwagon in 2003.
But many rank-and-file Democrats view Powell as less a hero than a rank opportunist, less the “good soldier” of his press clippings than a dangerous phony who has placed his career and reputation – time and again – ahead of the lives of American troops and the good of the country.
Many Democrats also remember bitterly the elections of 2002 and 2004 when national Democrats counseled the need to avoid confrontations with President George W. Bush over foreign policy, even as he and other Republicans bashed Democrats as unconcerned about national security and soft on terror.
At the 2004 Democratic Convention, party leaders even excised criticism of Bush from many speeches to avoid accusations that the Democrats were holding a “Bush hate-fest.” Obama, who gave the keynote address, went with the flow, stressing a hopeful message that did not mention Bush by name nor explain why he should be defeated.
The result of all this punch-less oratory was a “bounce-less” convention. Democratic nominee John Kerry gained no ground in opinion polls.
By contrast, the Republicans used their convention to batter Kerry in highly personal attacks, including a fierce keynote address by disaffected Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. Some GOP delegates even wore Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds in Vietnam.
The post-convention bounce for Bush was about 10 percentage points as he built a commanding early lead. The race only tightened toward the end when Kerry somewhat sharpened his criticism of the President.
After Bush prevailed again, the fury of the Democratic base finally forced the party leadership into a more combative style. In Election 2006, they stepped up attacks on the Iraq War and Bush’s imperial style – often over objections of Democratic consultants who again wanted to focus on domestic issues.
The result of the harder-edged campaign in 2006 was a surprising Democratic sweep of both the House and Senate.
Retreat on Iraq
Since then, however, the congressional Democrats have again listened to the consultants and drifted back into an avoidance of hard-fought confrontations with Bush over the Iraq War and the “war on terror.”
Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders vowed they would never again give Bush a blank check on the Iraq War, key Democrats, including Sens. Carl Levin and Barack Obama, started running up the white flag even as the legislative battle was beginning, by saying Democrats would never let the troops go without funding.
That concession signaled to Bush that he could simply keep vetoing troop withdrawal plans until the Democrats folded. As the Democrats eyed their Memorial Day recess – and feared that Bush would use the holiday to bash them as anti-troop – the surrender became official with the approval of another $100 billion blank check for Bush.
Obama hesitantly did join with the 29 Democrats who opposed the war funding bill – along with his chief rival Hillary Clinton – but neither Obama nor Clinton took the lead in the legislative battle.
More generally, Obama appears to have opted for a campaign strategy in which he will float above the partisan fray rather than jump into the trenches.
His decision to seek the counsel of Colin Powell – a move leaked by the Obama campaign and confirmed by Powell on NBC’s “Meet the Press” – suggests that the Illinois senator is hoping Powell’s “gravitas” inside Washington might rub off. Powell also retains popularity with many centrist Americans despite his Iraq War role.
But the Obama-Powell alliance may mean, too, that Obama won’t press very hard for an end of the Iraq War since Powell’s current position is that the United States can’t afford to withdraw despite the many errors in implementing the war strategy.
Much of the Democratic base, however, is sick of attempts by Democratic leaders to build alliances with “moderate” Republicans when that always seems to end up letting Bush continue his Iraq War and “war on terror” policies, no matter how harmful they may be.
The base wants to see a fight for both the principles of the American Republic and for political victory. Instead of seeking more accommodation and fuzzy centrism, many are putting up lawn signs that read, “Impeach Him.”
Bobby or Martin
In short, rank-and-file Democrats appear to be looking for a Bobby Kennedy or a Martin Luther King Jr., someone who will inspire and fight, not just aspire to be a well-liked consensus builder.
Obama, who benefited early on as both a political phenomenon and an alternative to a Clinton restoration, now appears stuck in the doldrums of the 20s in opinion polls, falling farther behind Sen. Clinton.
He may see his flirtation with Colin Powell as a way to burnish his mainstream credentials and add some establishment ballast to his campaign. But he also may discover that the relationship comes with a price.
Many well-informed Democrats know that Powell had many chances to speak up – or even resign – rather than acquiesce to or collaborate with Bush’s policies. Indeed, Powell may have been one of a small number of people whose timely opposition could have prevented the Iraq War. Or, Powell might have blocked a Bush second term if he had quit the administration before Election 2004, rather than wait to be forced out by Bush afterwards.
At Consortiumnews.com, our series “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend” traced Powell’s pattern of career opportunism back to his days as a young officer in the Vietnam War where he helped cover up atrocities against Vietnamese civilians, including actions by the Americal Division that encompassed the My Lai massacre.
This pattern continued as he rose through the military-political ranks, playing a key behind-the-scenes role in the Iran-Contra Affair. But he always managed to emerge from these scrapes with scandal by collecting more chits with the powerbrokers he served while also charming Washington’s media elite.
[We are including a chapter on Powell’s real biography in our upcoming book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
Now, Obama, as one of the first African-American presidential contenders, must decide who he’d rather emulate, Rev. King or Gen. Powell. He also must settle on what kind of a candidate he intends to be, a fighter or a finesser.
Meanwhile, the Democratic base must decide if any of the current pack of Democratic contenders has the right stuff for the nasty battles ahead.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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