In 1932, a Chicago lawyer and local Republican activist named Harold Ickes made news when he announced he was going to campaign for the Democratic nominee for president that year. Even bigger media interest was generated when two Republican U.S. Senators — Hiram Johnson of California and George W. Norris of Nebraska — both announced they were taking a walk across party lines to back Franklin D. Roosevelt for President.
Ickes, Johnson, and Norris were all "progressive" Republicans (the then-popular term for liberal GOPers) who felt that their party had grown too conservative under President Herbert Hoover and backed Roosevelt, who was running as a centrist. Roosevelt won in a landslide, Ickes joined his Cabinet as secretary of the interior, and Johnson and Norris would have tremendous influence with the Democratic President in a Senate dominated by Democrats.
The three Republicans-for-Roosevelt came to mind when Colin Powell, former secretary of state and self-styled "Rockefeller Republican," endorsed Barack Obama for President. The Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol predicted this summer that Powell would make a surprise address at the Democratic National Convention blessing Obama. Kristol, who launched the Standard in 1995 by urging Powell to run for President, had the story right and the timing wrong.
Conservatives no doubt feel justified in their wariness about the retired general and Secretary of State, who declared himself a Republican when he retired from the Army in the 1990s. At the time, Powell had described his distaste for cultural conservatives in the Republican Party and likened his Republicanism to that of the late New York governor and liberal GOPer Nelson Rockefeller. It should be no surprise that someone cut from that cloth should follow such liberal GOPers as former Environmental Protection Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus and former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson into the Obama camp.
I recall a 1991 conversation with Rep. Gary Franks (R.-Conn.), then the lone African American Republican in Congress. "We were at a dinner last night with Gen. Powell," he said, Powell at the time being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and keeping his political leanings a secret, "I grabbed him by one arm and said ‘He’s ours.’ And then Ron Brown [Democratic National Chairman] grabbed his other arms and said ‘He’s ours.’" Democrats would have been very comfortable with Powell.
But Powell’s announcement was still a surprise because of his close friendship and past support for John McCain. In 2000, he made a substantial contribution to the Arizonan’s first presidential campaign and McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky tried to spin a story to me how "all these Reagan Republicans are for McCain — [former White House chief of staff] Ken Duberstein, [longtime Reagan public relations adviser] Mike Deaver, and Colin Powell." He didn’t mention that all were Republicans distrusted by conservatives.
When he was secretary of state in Bush’s first term, Powell was one of three major appointees to back McCain over the president they were serving. True, he did say on Meet the Press that he did not like the direction McCain had been taking the campaign this year and he was concerned about him having perhaps two nominations to the Supreme Court as president — a curious thing for someone so identified with national security and foreign policy issues to cite. Powell may differ with McCain on cultural issues, but he must also have disagreements with Obama. Obama, after all, voted against the resolution authorizing force in Iraq and was one of three senators to altogether duck the vote on a resolution condemning Moveon.org for its ads calling Powell’s old comrade-in-arms David Petraeus "Gen. Betray Us."
Powell also expressed his doubts about the choice of Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee and whether she was up to the top job. Again, this is a bit strange as there is no evidence that he has met her or even talked to the Alaska Governor. He has apparently had two brief meetings with Obama.
What to make of the Powell endorsement? Perhaps that he was probably more liberal than conservatives warned he was when he declared himself a Republican.