observations and opinion
If there is a list of the most admired Americans of the last 20 years, General Colin Powell would certainly have been on it, at least up until his ill-starred turn shilling at the UN for the Iraq war in 2003. Nowhere on the list would you find the name “John Sununu.”
Last week General Powell endorsed Barack Obama again. This had weight in 2008 and ought to be meaningful this year: Powell is well-regarded; he has basically recanted his mistaken support for the Iraq war; he was a genuine hero, himself seriously considered to be Presidential timber. And best of all, he is a Republican.
Being a Republican is the one, and perhaps only thing, Powell has in common with the smug, yapping, lumpen and sour-minded John Sununu, one-time governor of New Hampshire and honcho in the Bush 41 administration. Yet their paths crossed rather electrically the other day, when Sununu opined on CNN that the General’s endorsement of Obama wasn’t such a big deal because, well, you know, look at them. They’re both…black.
This statement has been met with the predictable howls of outrage on the left and the typical, bloodless dismissal of the President himself. Mr. Sununu has back-tracked, saying that of course General Powell endorsed Obama because of the latter’s policies, not the other reason I mentioned, etc etc. Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to offend. Media coverage treats all this as a “faux pas” and is loaded with comment about what a goofball Sununu is, that he shouldn’t be let near a microphone, and so on.
John Sununu is a lot of things, but one thing he is not, is stupid. Who’s stupid? Anyone who believes that Sununu’s original statement was “a mistake” or a “slip of the tongue” or even some inadvertent blurt of candor. It was none of those things. Sununu’s comment was a carefully calibrated, specifically timed and deliberate move by the Romney campaign, plopped like a chocolate bar in the shallow end. Everyone out of the pool – oh, gee, it’s not what we thought it was…
You might think it unlikely that the Romney campaign would unleash a hound like Sununu to make an overtly racist, or at least racial, comment denigrating General Powell. Think again. Governor Romney may not be a racist (he shows no sign of it, and after all, has lived his life under the a small cloud of “otherness” himself). But using race as a way to beat Obama is, well, not exactly rocket science. It is on page 1 of the Republican Playbook, just down the page from “Birth Certificate” “Kenya” and just above “Socialist”. The GOP doesn’t mind offending liberal or black voters with a sideswipe like this – exactly five black people are going to vote for Mitt Romney and they’re all named Cain. Exactly no white liberals (the type of people who get in an uproar about these things) are going to vote for Mitt Romney, except by pressing in the wrong chad. The Romney campaign is not worried about those people.
The people whom the Romney campaign is worried about are moderate white voters, who are uncertain about President Obama on the merits, and who are trying to decide whether he gets four more years or a ticket back to Chicago. These are the kind of white voters who, 12 or 16 years ago, would have voted Republican if General Powell had answered the call to go after that party’s nomination. These are the kind of white voters who remember Powell as a wise, competent person, a man whom they instinctively respect. The Obama campaign is desperately trying to re-gain the confidence of these voters and so, not by accident, it timed the Powell endorsement for last week.
And so, just as not-by-accident, the Sununu express ran over that endorsement. Nobody gives a darn who John Sununu is, or what he thinks, about anything. But some people believe that black voters are more inlined to vote for Obama, at least in part because of race. That may be true. The Sununu intervention was intended to remind people that Obama is black, and that Powell is black, and by linking the latter’s endorsement of the former to race, to de-value that endorsement.
Will it work? If it holds one vote back from Obama, then it already has worked. Sununu walked back the statement hours later, but of course that’s exactly what he planned to do, exactly what everyone would expect him to do – pretend to apologize, pretend to withdraw the remark. Nobody believes the apology – everyone believes the first statement (ironically, the race statement may in fact have been the lie, but it was a lie built for a purpose, just like the apology).
Withdrawn or not, the race statement was out there, on CNN, and then everywhere instantly – “Powell only endorsed Obama because they’re both black.” It’s perfect, because it diminishes the Powell endorsement and it reminds white people that Obama is not one of them. It doesn’t say anything bad about Obama, and more importantly it doesn’t say anything bad about Powell, or even black people . People can go on respecting everything about Colin Powell, but they will remember, somewhere in the back of their heads, that what the good general has to say about President Obama doesn’t matter really, because, you know,”they’re both… black.”