Colin Powell is to “Meet the Press” what Alec Baldwin is to “Saturday Night Live” - a frequent guest who embodies the very spirit of the show. The former secretary of state epitomizes the Washington establishment. His thinking couldn’t be any more crashingly conventional if he convened a committee of the Harvard School of Government, the Council on Foreign Relations and David Broder before making any move.
It should have surprised no one, then, that Mr. Powell marked his 30th appearance on “Meet the Press” with an endorsement of Barack Obama. Mr. Powell’s other favored means of communication - confiding in Bob Woodward and leaking anonymously to newspapers - weren’t suited to the task. Only half an hour with a docile Tom Brokaw would do.
Mr. Powell’s reasons for swinging to Mr. Obama were a watery stew of all the regnant cliches about the campaign. He argued that John McCain “was a little unsure as to [how to] deal with the economic problems that we were having,” in contrast to Mr. Obama’s “steadiness” and “intellectual vigor.” It’s true Mr. McCain flailed around early in the crisis, but he was desperately trying to find something that worked as his poll numbers tanked. If voters had been inclined to mindlessly blame Democrats rather than Republicans for the meltdown, Mr. Obama might not have looked so imperturbable.
As for Mr. Obama’s vigor, perhaps the Illinois senator has regaled Mr. Powell with detailed explanations of how the market for commercial paper has been disrupted by the credit crunch and other nuances. In public, he has just been blasting eight years of Bush economic policy and deregulation - easy, partisan lines. He hasn’t yet taken a position on the AIG bailout and avoided any leadership role on the Henry Paulson plan one way or another.
Mr. Powell decried Mr. McCain’s emphasis on Mr. Obama’s past with former terrorist Bill Ayers as “inappropriate.” This is part of the fable that Mr. McCain is running the nastiest campaign in recorded history. It depends on ignoring all Mr. Obama’s attacks.
Mr. McCain is borderline senile? Mr. McCain and his buddy Rush Limbaugh hate Latinos? Mr. McCain is going to raise your taxes? Well, you’ve got to break some eggs to make hope and change.
Imagine if a Republican presidential candidate had pledged to take public financing, but instead dealt the post-Watergate campaign-financing system a blow from which it will never recover. If he raised $600 million and out-advertised his opponent nationwide by 4-to-1. This candidate’s campaign would be pronounced “an obscene effort to buy the election.” Mr. Powell, no doubt, would be “troubled.” But Barack Obama does it and everyone stands back in admiration.
Regardless, mere campaign tactics should be beneath an eminence such as Mr. Powell. On “Meet the Press,” he regretted that the Republican Party “has moved even further to the right.” Even if true - the Bush administration that Mr. Powell served piled up massive spending even before semi-nationalizing banks - it’s an odd brief against John McCain.
Mr. McCain has never been a conservative crusader, certainly not since his 2000 presidential run. Mr. Powell has endorsed two other presidential candidates in his post-military career, Bob Dole and George W. Bush. Mr. McCain is certainly less conservative than Mr. Bush, and it’s a jump ball with Mr. Dole.
While Republicans tolerate the non-ideological John McCain, Democrats nominated a presidential candidate who catered to the party’s base in the primaries and whose election would vastly empower the relentlessly partisan congressional duo of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The moderate, sensible Mr. Powell is willing to take a flier on a unified Democratic government that will represent a drastic leftward lurch.
This is why his purported reasons for endorsing Mr. Obama sound more like excuses. Does Mr. Powell want to be with the front-runner? Is he hoping to cleanse his reputation after the fiasco over the never-found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? His ultimate motives are known only to him. We must do Mr. Powell the courtesy of taking his case at face value and note only how unconvincing it is, if thoroughly conventional. He’ll be back on “Meet the Press.”
Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.