Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- November 8, 1995
by James Fallows

Powell the Democrat

As the last person in America to express a view on Colin Powell's candidacy, let me take the last available position, which is: that if Powell runs, he should do so as a Democrat.

There are some obvious practical problems with this approach, which I'll get to in a moment. For now the point is that if he runs as a Republican, Powell is likely to increase cynicism about himself and about the political system many people hope he will save.

What makes the public despair about today's politicians, notably front-runners Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, is the sense that they will tailor their positions on any issue -- taxes, gun control, you name it -- to what people want to hear today. Colin Powell is now free of such suspicions, but as soon as he enters a Republican primary that will change. As a group of conservatives pointed out last week in attacking Powell, the whole momentum of today's triumphant Republican party, especially on economic and social issues, is away from the positions Powell has implicitly held through his career. Therefore unless he plans to make his campaign a crusade to reverse the Republican philosophy, which he's given no sign of doing, Powell -- like Dole or Clinton -- will be forced to temporize, hedge, "re-explain" to win support.

The Democratic party, by contrast, wants desperately to move to the place where Colin Powell already is. In its triumphant years, the party believed that the government's role was to expand opportunities. Thus the GI Bill to educate soldiers; thus the early Civil Rights laws; thus student loans. Powell's entire life, from his education at City College of New York to his decades of service in the Army, illustrates perfectly this Democratic vision of the government increasing opportunity, and individuals responding with effort and excellence. Today's Democrats often have trouble talking believably about "excellence" or "self-discipline." General Powell would have no trouble at all. Today's Republicans say that the best approach to bureaucracy is just to get rid of it. Colin Powell devoted 30 years of his life to the more Democratic-style goal of making a very large bureaucracy -- the military -- work better.

If he ran as a Democrat, there would be very little in Colin Powell's life or views that he would have to explain away. If he ran as a Democrat this time, of course, he would have to contend with a sitting president -- and a man as cautious in choosing fights as Powell may well decide that neither party's nomination is worth the risk. But if he is going to roll the dice, it might as well be in a cause that will do him honor in the long run. Trying to lead the ravaged Democrats, rather just to outmaneuver other Republicans, would be an honorable cause.

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Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.