The recent establishment of "Powell '96," a student group devoted to supporting a Colin Powell presidential campaign, will have a positive influence on campus political debate. On a broader level, it is also a reflection of Powell's political viability.
Traditionally, election year debates at the Institute of Politics' ARCO Forum and the Harvard Political Union are usually mere clashes of Democratic and Republican rhetoric. Neither party's message has been able to inspire the nation lately. A Powell for president student contingent could energize these discussions. This group could help to provide the third party/independent perspective for which today's voters seem to be clamoring.
The widespread respect for Colin Powell has been well-documented by the numerous polls and the success of his recent book tour. But this vague national sentiment becomes more important when grassroots groups begin to organize to provide an electoral base for the retired general. These groups can translate public admiration into votes for Powell in next year's election.
That Harvard students are already willing to work for Powell is an indication of his widespread support. For example, no student group organized on this campus to assist Ross Perot in the last election. Powell is not only seen as a more realistic presidential candidate but the nation also seems to crave his leadership and steadfastness.
Yet, Powell has not made a formal decision to run for president so far. We will leave speculation about the outcome of his choice to pundits and gamblers. But it is clear that Powell has been moving more and more to the conservative end of the political spectrum over the last few weeks. His overtures to the religious right are just one example of this trend. Powell appears to be positioning himself to make a run for the Republican nomination.
However, if Powell really wants to transform the current political scene and remain true to the moral resoluteness that has inspired so many Americans, he should run as an independent. Some argue that Powell could run as a Republican. This has its advantages, including better fundraising and an existing organizational structure that could translate into a greater chance of getting elected. But the country needs fresh political solutions and Powell would not be able to provide these if be were to compete with Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan for the votes of right wing zealots. For the same reasons, Powell would probably not be able to effectively challenge the Republican Party's history of race-baiting and scapegoating of the poor and minority groups during or after the primary process.
Colin Powell has indicated that he will make some firm decisions regarding the presidency within the next two weeks. Of course, he will primarily listen to the advice of his family, close friends and political advisors. We hope, for the sake of vibrant political debate, that he also takes into account the unsolicited support for him that has springing up all across the country--even at Harvard.