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Colin Powell and the GOP: The end of the affair?

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Once upon a time — way, way back, before Google even existed — there was a respected Republican Army general. America loved him. His party, too. So much so that many moonstruck GOP partisans fervently hoped Colin L. Powell would top a White House ticket, instead of boring old party standby-cum-safety-date Bob Dole.

Like we said, it was a long time ago.

To the list of history's great break-ups — the continental rifting of Pangaea; the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the split between Kim Kardashian and that tall doofus she married on television — add this: Mr. Powell and the Republican Party.

The surest sign of irreconcilable differences? Mr. Powell's recent appearance on a Sunday morning political talk show, in which the former secretary of state:

• Praised former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's potentially contentious nominee for secretary of defense, as "superbly qualified" for the job because of both his military service in Vietnam and his world view.

• Said that the Republican Party suffers from a "dark vein of [racial] intolerance in some parts of the party," citing ongoing speculation about the legitimacy of Mr. Obama's birth certificate and former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin's statement that the president was "shuckin' and jivin'."

• Expressed support for a possible ban on assault weapons and more comprehensive background checks and registration procedures for gun owners.

• Lamented a "significant shift to the right" in the GOP that has produced "two losing presidential campaigns."

• Added that "I think the Republican Party right now is having an identity problem" and that "if it's just going to represent the far right wing of the political spectrum, I think the party is in difficulty";

• Noted that he voted for Mr. Obama twice, breaking a streak of voting for a Republican presidential candidate seven times in a row;

• Claimed that "I'm a moderate, but I'm still a Republican."

Perhaps not surprisingly, conservative bloggers and commentators took issue with that claim. And pretty much everything else that came out of Mr. Powell's mouth.

One labeled Mr. Powell's performance "disgraceful." Another asked, "Why does Powell continue to call himself a Republican?"

For sheer jilted vitriol, however, writer Quin Hillyer of the American Spectator earned a gold star, labeling Mr. Powell a "man of little character," an "increasingly despicable … backstabbing lout" who "was afforded credit he didn't deserve" for the Gulf War and "a nasty apparatchik currying favor with those in power. Maybe that's all [Mr. Powell] ever was."

Other than that, Mr. Hillyer, how did you enjoy the morning show?

Signs of a political schism have existed since 1992, when CNN's "Capital Gang" pundit Martin Schram suggested that Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton would select Mr. Powell as his running mate — never mind that Mr. Powell worked as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when George H.W. Bush was president.

On second thought, the seeds of an unhappy marriage may have been planted even earlier: Mr. Powell once told a television interviewer that in 1964 he was stopped by a state trooper who was handing out Barry Goldwater presidential campaign paraphernalia and took exception to the "All the Way with LBJ" bumper sticker pasted on Mr. Powell's — wait for it — Volkswagen.

In 1995, Mr. Powell publicly declared himself a Republican — warning sign No. 2: if you have to tell everyone in America which party you support, doesn't that say something? — and was considered a possible opponent for Mr. Clinton. Citing a "lack of passion for political life," Mr. Powell declined to run for the White House, stating that "I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln."

Cynical-but-probably-accurate political translation: Mr. Powell's center-left views on race and social welfare did not sit well with conservative Republicans, who reportedly were primed to resist his candidacy.

After campaigning for Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, Mr. Powell was appointed secretary of state; in office, he reportedly feuded with Vice President Dick Cheney, a conservative stalwart who had been secretary of defense when Mr. Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The two reportedly were at odds throughout President George W. Bush's first term, disagreeing about the Iraq War, interrogation techniques and the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Bad blood again bubbled up in 2011, when Mr. Cheney published a memoir suggesting that Mr. Powell had undercut public support for the Iraq conflict and Mr. Powell subsequently decried Mr. Cheney's "cheap shots."

The relationship between Mr. Powell and the Republican Party grew even more strained when Mr. Powell endorsed Mr. Obama in 2008. The next year, Mr. Powell was asked on CNN whether Republicans should continue to listen to conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Mr. Powell's response — "Is this really the kind of party that we want to be when these kinds of spokespersons seem to appeal to our lesser instincts rather than our better instincts?" — drew return fire from Mr. Limbaugh, who said that if Mr. Powell continued to criticize the Republican Party, he should stop claiming he's a Republican interested in reforming the GOP and instead become a Democrat.

Twisting the verbal knife, Mr. Limbaugh also said that Mr. Powell's endorsement of Mr. Obama was "purely and solely based on race."

When Mr. Powell again endorsed Mr. Obama last year during a televised interview — calling himself "a Republican of a more moderate mold," lamenting that people like himself are "something of a dying breed" and expressing disagreement with Republican orthodoxy on immigration, climate change and education — Mitt Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire Republican Gov. John Sununu touched off a minor media firestorm by echoing Mr. Limbaugh's sentiment.

The Romney campaign quickly issued a statement on Mr. Sununu's behalf expressing "respect" for Mr. Powell and proclaiming that he "didn't think" the former secretary of state should leave the GOP. Nevertheless, damage had been done.

Other, more recent signs of a strained, loveless partnership include Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, casting his vote for Mr. Powell for speaker of the House and Mr. Powell's spokeswoman, Peggy Cifrino, stating that Mr. Powell watches Al-Jazeera English.

Type "Colin Powell" and the letters "de" into a Google search bar, and one of the first results that comes up is "Colin Powell democrat or republican."

Will Mr. Powell's most recent spat with conservatives result in a political divorce? A pained, ongoing charade? The former seems more likely. After all, Mr. Powell has a point: The modern GOP is increasingly dominated by its conservative base. And staunch conservatives have a point, too: Mr. Powell never really has been one of them.

Maybe the most honest thing would be to stop pretending otherwise. The magic's gone. Perhaps both sides would be best served by looking each other in the eye, the way they did so long ago, and utter a simple, honest phrase, one that would save everyone involved additional heartbreak: It's not me. It's you.

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