The Powell factor

Colin Powell confirmed on “Meet the Press” that he twice met with Barack Obama to discuss foreign and defense issues. More significant: President Bush’s first secretary of state twice refused to say he’d definitely back the Republican nominee next year. “I’m going to support the best person that I can find,” he insisted.

Powell is hardly alone. A rising number of Republicans are disillusioned with their president and their party, and that’s bad news for the GOP heading into 2008.

Look at the Senate, where seven Republicans defied their leadership and voted to debate a Democratic resolution declaring no-confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The real number of unhappy Republicans is much higher. Sen. Arlen Specter got it right when he said, “There is no confidence in the attorney general on this side of the aisle.”

Or look at the latest Pew Research Center poll. Bush’s overall approval rating has slumped to 29 percent. Among Republicans, his support has dropped to 65 percent, down from 77 percent only two months ago and 95 percent five years ago.

Of course, any Democratic candidate has to be careful consorting with Powell, who sold the Iraq invasion at the United Nations using deeply flawed intelligence. The general’s once glistening reputation has dulled considerably, and his interview on “Meet the Press” showed why.

As he told interviewer Tim Russert, he “would’ve preferred no war” and warned the president that invading Iraq would saddle the United States “with a major burden for many years.” But once his advice was ignored he supported the mission and never considered resigning in protest. “That’s part of being part of a team,” he explained.

Powell’s determination to play the good soldier – and not apologize for his actions – infuriates antiwar critics like Sara Meric, who wrote to the Los Angeles Times: “You chose to salute and keep quiet. How many American military and Iraqi civilian lives could you have saved if you had used your prestige to speak out forcefully against the planned invasion of Iraq based on an immoral pack of administration lies?”

But Powell remains an important political figure. Don’t forget in 1996 CBS News asked voters who they’d choose if the general was heading the GOP ticket instead of Bob Dole. The result: Powell 50, Bill Clinton 38.

Powell contemplated a candidacy that year but never took the plunge. His wife Alma was worried about his safety and the family’s privacy. As his cousin told us at the time, Powell longed for financial security and wanted to earn enough money so that he could afford to be secretary of state, and that’s exactly what he did.

But a key reason for his decision was the rightward drift of the Republican Party. He was in tune with GOP doctrine on defense and economic issues, but far more liberal than the party’s conservative base on matters like affirmative action, abortion and gay rights.

One example: he told Russert that “gays and lesbians should be allowed to have maximum access to all aspects of society.” That comment reveals why Powell, like many moderate Republicans, is unhappy with a party that uses “God, guns and gays” to energize their hardcore supporters.

Another issue fracturing the GOP today is the rule of law. Powell declared that the Guantanamo Bay prison camp should be closed “not tomorrow, but this afternoon,” because it has become “a major, major problem [for] the way the world perceives America.”

The administration’s handling of enemy combatants is only one of many reasons why so many Republican lawmakers have lost confidence in Attorney General Gonzales. They are appalled at how he has allowed raw politics to infect decisions on U.S. attorneys, immigration judges and prosecutorial priorities.

That’s what Democrats do, they say, use their power to bend the rules. We’re the party of law and order, remember?

But it’s Powell’s views on Iraq that foreshadow the worst problem for Republicans next year. The public face of the war is now unflinching in his criticism of how that mission has been handled. His presentation at the United Nations was poisoned by a “total failure” of the intelligence agencies to get the facts right. Iraq is gripped by a “civil war,” and the effort to train Iraqi security forces and bring Baghdad’s warring politicians together “is not going well.” Failure to talk to Syria and Iran is “shortsighted.”

Colin Powell is no longer the hero he once was, but his potential defection signals a world of trouble for Republicans next year.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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