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Political parties look longingly to Colin Powell

Published Jul. 17, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

It's way too early to start speculating about the 1996 presidential election, but we're in the dog days of summer and there's not much else to write about except health care, North Korea, Haiti and the O. J. Simpson case.

So, in the delirium of summer heat and humidity, I give you my first prediction for the 1996 campaign season: Even if the economy is sluggish, even if Whitewater still gives off the faint odor of scandal and even if U.S. troops are bogged down in Haiti, President Clinton will be re-elected for the simple reason that Republicans don't have a strong candidate to run against him.

Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Lamar Alexander _ surely Republicans can do better. The kindest thing you can say about Dole is that the country is tired of his partisan obstructionism. Kemp's political identity is tied to Reaganomics. And besides, on most social issues he's probably too progressive for the religious conservatives who are increasing their grip on the GOP nominating process. Buchanan is a right-wing zealot. Cheney and Alexander are able men but they are not likely to set any political fields on fire.

It's pretty depressing until you consider the one man who might generate some excitement among voters and give Bill Clinton a run for his money _ Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell is far from being the perfect candidate. We don't even know if he is a Republican or a Democrat. And we know little or nothing about his views on hot-button domestic issues, including abortion, school prayer, taxes and national health care reform.

About all we know is that as the first African-American to serve as White House national security adviser (under Reagan) and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under Bush), Powell has the potential to be a real player in national politics. For once, a black man is being spoken of as a potential president rather than as a vice-presidential running mate, which is about as far as Jesse Jackson ever got in Democratic politics.

Since his retirement from the military 10 months ago, Powell has kept a low profile for the most part, working on his autobiography (for which he reportedly received a $6-million advance) and making a few speeches, most of them closed to the press. The book will be finished by the end of the year, and if Powell, who is 57, has any political ambitions, he is likely to tip his hand sometime after that. About all he will say at the moment is that "I just hope to be able to find a way to serve my country in some capacity."

If he chooses to seek political office, Powell is bound to be cast as another Eisenhower, a soldier-statesman who presents himself as an alternative to a lifelong politician at a time when the country's attention is shifting to the daunting foreign policy issues of the post-Cold War era. Ironically, if Clinton succeeds in reviving the economy and addressing such issues as welfare, crime and health care, foreign policy issues are likely to figure even more prominently in the next presidential election, especially if Clinton continues to founder in that area.

Powell, of course, is used to the regimen and order of military life. How he would hold up in the rough and tumble of politics, where just about anything goes these days, is a major question. Nor is it clear whether Powell has the kind of vision that could define his candidacy and distinguish him from a sitting president.

My hunch is that Powell at heart is closer to the Democrats on social issues, and if the Republicans are looking for someone to lead a holy war in 1996, he is not their general. At the same time, Powell's foreign policy views were shaped by his service in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Although he has gone out of his way not to criticize the president since he left the Pentagon, Powell was a source of irritation to Clinton before hanging up his uniform. Some White House aides have not forgiven Powell for publicly opposing Clinton's failed effort to lift the military ban on gays, but they recognize his political potential and have promoted speculation that the retired general might wind up in the Clinton Cabinet.

According an Associated Press story, senior administration officials last spring informally contacted Powell about his availability to replace Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Powell reportedly told them he was intrigued by the idea but was committed to finishing his autobiography. A lot of Washington insiders are betting that Christopher, who has come to personalize the administration's foreign policy weaknesses, will step aside before the end of Clinton's first term. If that happens, the president could do worse than offer the job to Powell, even though his stand on the military's gay ban would make his nomination controversial. And if Powell again declined, would that mean he is getting ready to challenge his former commander-in-chief?

If Republicans were smart, they would do everything they could to keep Powell out of the Clinton administration. He has never worn a political saddle, but given the alternatives, Powell would be worth the risk as the party's 1996 standard bearer. He might turn out to the the fastest horse they could put on the track. And, of course, he could always choose a running mate from the likes of Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Lamar Alexander and Dick Cheney.

My prediction: Powell is more likely to wind up in the Clinton Cabinet than at the head of the Republican ticket in '96.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.