Ask the average Democratic voter under 35 about former Secretary of State Colin Powell and they’ll probably mention his role with the Iraq War and little else. Sure, he was a trailblazer with a historic career, but his pitch to the UN warning of weapons of mass destruction helped justify a conflict that shaped their lives and politics, they’d say.
Joe Biden voted to greenlight that conflict, which Powell’s appearance at the DNC Tuesday night just reminded viewers of, and that there is the risk for Democrats of including him in their convention.
"How many war criminals are we hearing from tonight," read a tweet Tuesday referring to Powell, which was shared later by the larger activist account "Millennials for Bernie."
The account retweeted a number of posts with this sentiment throughout the second night of the Democratic National Convention. "Democrats will shed tears over refugees and protest the Muslim ban, only to turn around and fawn over war criminals that are responsible for their displacement," read another.
Not too long ago, one of former President Barack Obama’s signature talking points in his first campaign was his original opposition to the Iraq War. It was a part of a winning message about his judgment that propelled young people to volunteer and vote for his campaign. Joe Biden's and Hillary Clinton’s historic votes approving the initial military action, by comparison, has haunted them politically for years.
Of course, ask older, more moderate Democrats about the decision to include Powell (or those who say they are just ruthlessly pragmatic) and they’ll roll eyes at the suggestion of the controversy. With the president still hemorrhaging Reagan and Bush Republicans, why not extend an olive branch? President Donald Trump’s divisive and chaotic politics turned off conservative independents years ago. More and more voters say they are hungry for a bridge-builder, a steady-hand -- why not show them one?
"With Joe Biden in the White House, you will never doubt that he will stand with our friends and stand up to our adversaries. Never the other way around. He will trust our diplomats and our intelligence community -- not the flattery of dictators and despots," Powell said Tuesday.
Powell, former Republican Gov. John Kasich, and the late Sen. John McCain (who was featured Tuesday night by his wife, Cindy McCain, talking about his close friendship with Biden) all represent senior statesmen, willing (and portrayed) to be the kinds of leaders who use their time in office to cross party lines and speak to national values that supersede party.
Democrats chose to put those types of voices front and center to both admonish behavior they say they have witnessed from Trump and give and a nudge to conservative voters who have turned away from Trump, but might still be leery about turning toward the Democratic ticket.
"There are a bunch of people out there -- silent Biden voters, Republicans that want to vote for Biden or that will be voting for Biden -- and it's important to let them know that they're not alone," Rep. Cedric Richmond, a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign said Monday.
"I would just say that we are making sure that every segment of the country that supports the Biden-Harris ticket has a chance to express why they're supporting them. That includes GOP members, GOP people that are supporting the vice president because there are a number of them around the country," Richmond added while talking to reporters.
The lineup of Republicans for Biden over the last few days has been notable and the rationale signposts Democrats’ theory of how to win this race -- by doing it all; by being "not Trump" to everyone looking for not Trump; by standing up the biggest tent that stretches from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s mention of American colonialism to Powell.
Biden’s bet is that in this environment, bringing in discontented Republicans and independents does not lead to much apathy among young voters and the progressive base. It’s not a new theory, or a new risk-reward calculation by any stretch. Young voters may not show up either way; older, more centrist independent women have been voting in droves since Trump was elected.
It helps that all the vouching from Republicans fits the broader message of who Biden is and how he would likely govern. It has been presented this week as an honest insight into Biden and not just a reminder or celebration of the seismic fracturing in the GOP caused by Trump.
Still, while the political climate has changed, Democrats’ surprise loss in 2016 still hangs like a foreboding cloud over all campaign choices. Progressives still seem especially anxious that the party could be repeating past mistakes. Their fear is that if Biden looks too much like an old-school politician to young or more radical potential Democrats, he won’t seem worth their time.
"Fmr. Governor Kasich and Secretary Powell are not only irrelevant in the Republican Party, but their presence at the Democratic convention is also a slap in the face to anyone who believes our party needs to be crystal clear about where we stand on abortion rights, organized labor, marriage equality, the threat of guns in our communities, police brutality against black people and the greatest foreign policy disaster in a generation," said Yvette Simpson, CEO of Democracy for America and an ABC contributor, in a statement.
Powell was far from the only Republican on the Democratic stage that took a beating. Women’s health advocates lamented Kasich’s inclusion and made a point of arguing his anti-abortion legislation while in office.
Over the last 10 years, the number of Americans who identify as independents has skyrocketed. According to Gallup, it has far eclipsed the number who identify with either party, having pulled from both.
"Joe Biden is.... Not Donald Trump. #Demconvention," immigrant rights’ activist Erika Andiola tweeted Tuesday. The latest ABC News polls showed Biden narrowing the enthusiasm gap between his voters and Trump’s but still quite lagging.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama used her time Monday to plead against apathy. "Four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn't matter. Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn't be close," she said. "Maybe the barriers felt too steep."
The barriers are going to be steep this go-around too, maybe steeper. The question now, after such a focus on giving disillusioned Republicans permission to vote for him, will be whether Biden needs pivot and make the case for why others should feel excited to vote for him too?