Exploding the Myths

Powell Has Great Potential as a Presidential Candidate

As General Colin Powell moves closer to a decision, speculation continues to mount as to which of three options he will choose: to mount an independent or third party candidacy, to enter the already-crowded but uninspiring Republican field, or to simply remain in retirement.

It is clear that the American public is eager for him to run for president. The latest polls show him tied with President Clinton in a three-way race, with candidate Bob Dole a few percentage points behind. In a two-way race, it isn't even close: Powell is crushing Clinton as the Republican nominee. Despite announcing his position on several controversial issues, including abortion, gun control, affirmative action and immigration, his popularity across the political spectrum and across racial lines remains undisturbed. But several myths about Powell that have gained currency must be corrected.

Myth #1: Powell is an outsider.

Powell spent much of his military career inside the beltway. As national security adviser and later as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was intimately involved in the decision-making process and is most likely quite skilled at playing the power game. Powell was an instrumental architect of arms control, the Base Force reduction of troops in the face of changing military priorities, and the Panama invasion.

There is nothing sinister about his political experience. By necessity, senior military officials must develop relationships with congressional representatives and senators in order to get favorable legislation passed. The experiences of Presidents Carter and Clinton certainly indicate that a familiarity with how Washington works is essential. Any belief that Powell is going to shake up Washington is naive. But if he runs, he will be the only candidate not bound to any PACs or other money-based influences in the political process.

Myth # 2: Republicans are eager for a Powell candidacy. As early as 1983, insiders were throwing around Powell's name as a vice presidential candidate. The Quest for the Presidency, 1992 details how members of George Bush's reelection team attempted to persuade Den Quayle to step aside for Powell. And earlier this year, as reported in Newsweek, Bush and other prominent Republicans paid a visit to Powell's Virginia home in the hopes that he would make a firm commitment to the Republican Party with the idea that he would be offered the vice presidential nomination from Dole, who appeared invulnerable at that point. Further more, Powell has described himself as a "Rockefeller Republican" and declared that he was uncomfortable with many liberal programs.

All these things would appear to make him a perfect fit for the Republican party. Unfortunately, the thought of his candidacy makes many Republicans very nervous. After Watergate removed Richard Nixon from the political scene and gutted Republican numbers in Congress, the Republican Party rebuilt itself in the image of Ronald Reagan. His message of conservatism with a smile captured the hearts of voters. Ever since that time, the party has continued to move rightward, forcing longtime politicians like Dole to alter long-held positions to appeal to conservative voters. The current Congress is at work completing the anti-government revolution promised by Reagan.

Powell is, therefore, much more liberal than most Republican voters, mixing fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Pat Buchanan has vowed to lead the conservatives out of the convention should Powell be nominated. Pete Wilson not so subtly called Dole "The best general" to lead Republicans back to the White House. Newt Gingrich questioned whether he should enter the race because he thinks that Powell would move the party in the wrong direction. The party could face another bitter civil war, like that between Gold-water and Rockefeller, should Powell actually throw his hat in the ring.

Nonetheless, Powell could be the best thing possible for the Republican Party. Capable of attracting widespread moderate votes, Powell could solidify the realignment taking place and make the Republican Party the dominant party for the foreseeable future. Certainly, Powell as president would not allow Congress a free rein, but he would certainly be more amenable to their legislation than Clinton. And without Powell, and barring any surprise entries, the nomination will surely go to Dole, who most certainly will lose to Clinton in a two-way race. But even with the advantages of Powell as standard-bearer, many Republicans are hoping the general chooses continued retirement.

Myth # 3: Powell cannot win as a third party or independent candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot captured 20 percent of the electorate. Perot had arguably more negatives than any other candidate in modern history, maligned both by the press, which was vicious in its coverage, and by his own tongue. He abandoned his supporters in July, angering the vast majority of them. Then, he reentered, did well at the first debate with his folksy humor and soared in the polls. But he undid himself again, declaring in a 60 Minutes interview that Republicans had plotted to disrupt his daughter's wedding. His momentum died.

Powell Possesses none of Perot's negatives; in fact, any alleged negatives are highly disputable. Though mentioned in the Iran-Contra Report for not having revealed Weinburger's diaries, there is not a shred of evidence that he was involved in any illegalities. And his role in the initial My Lai Investigation was small and hampered by a cover-up by the soldiers present. He dealt with both topics fully in his autobiography.

If Perot can capture 20 per-cent of the vote, Powell's good for at least 35 percent provided he doesn't self-destruct in public, like Muskie or McGovern, or run a terrible campaign and lose momentum, like Dukakis. His splendid performances during Desert Storm press briefings and his recent book tour show that he has the charisma and skill to campaign across America. Thirty-five percent in a three-way race would mean either victory or the election being sent to the House of Representatives.

Even if he were to receive the smallest popular vote, Dole could receive enough Republican support to send him to the White House, even as the House vote reduced him to a figure-head. But in the House, with Clinton effectively defeated, Powell would receive the support of Democratic congressmen and many Republican moderates, perhaps enough to make him the 43rd president. As an independent president, Powell would have a unique chance to transcend partisan politics. But to reach that point, Powell must remain free of any connections to Perot, especially becoming the candidate of one Independent Party, for Perot's negatives would quickly become Powell's.

Myth #4: Powell's popularity will decrease as he becomes a real candidate. After Powell explained his stances on several important issues, a poll showed his support in fact to be higher. Charismatic candidates like Powell are able to maintain their popularity. Ronald Reagan, one of the most conservative figures in our country's history and a primary figure in the biggest scandal since Watergate, left the White House with a nearly 70 percent approval rating.

In 1952, many of General Eisen-hower's closest friends urged him not to run because of the divisive nature of politics and the fact that everyone involved gets tarnished. When he left office in January 1961, he was the most beloved figure in America. It wouldn't be surprising for another general to leave the Oval Office in January 2005 in the same position.