The general's assault on the GOP

September 30, 1995|By Daniel Berger

JUST BY CLOSING no options, Gen. Colin Powell has restored the center to American politics.

More than that, he has revived the moderate, internationalist wing of the Republican Party, which had given itself up for dead.

General Powell is not a quixotic figure. His mystique is for caution, preparation and overwhelming odds. He despises adventures, abhors risk.

Extrapolated from the military to the political theater of operations, that would lead one to believe he contemplates no independent run for the presidency. He would need a ready-made party of loyalists.

Arguably, Ross Perot is trying to provide just that, but probably not. Mr. Perot knows what he has in mind. That it is a vehicle for General Powell is open to doubt.

The general's views correspond with much of the Democratic Party's, including the new leadership centrists that had briefly seemed ascendant in 1992.

But General Powell is an unlikely Democrat for three reasons, the most important of which is that he says so.

The second is that his advancement as a political general came from the patronage of Republican presidents to whom he is reciprocally loyal. The third is his contempt for Mr. Clinton's (and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake's) decision-making.

In any case, the Democrats have a nominee. Should Mr. Clinton get hit by a bus, Vice President Al Gore is their certain choice over the weak challenge from Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

No, General Powell is a Republican. And all his policy views, as they become increasingly known, are within the mainstream of the Republican heritage.

He is in the tradition of such figures as President Eisenhower, Vice President Rockefeller and, in Maryland terms, the late Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and Rep. Constance A. Morella.

Against the Right

But the party is in the hands of its right wing. Newt Gingrich is legislator-in-chief, Sen. Phil Gramm its trumpet, the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed its conscience. Front-running presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole is playing catch-up. Gov. Pete Wilson, repudiating his own record, bowed to their majesty before bowing out.

The new majority in Congress is far more isolationist than the general could stomach and a radical departure from the foreign policy of Presidents Eisenhower-to-Bush. In domestic matters, it is too mean-spirited for General Powell on affirmative action and a safety net for the disadvantaged.

Until General Powell popped out of the woodwork, the Republicans who agreed with him on most issues were vanquished and not fighting back. Governor Wilson galloped away from them as a Gramm wannabe. Nasty Sen. Arlen Specter offended the constituents he would champion. Senator Dole, the conservative on President Ford's losing ticket of 1976, is older than Ronald Reagan in 1979.

Suddenly there is a potential nominee who could wean centrist voters from a Democratic incumbent and lure many black voters back to the party of their grandparents.

A potential nominee espousing the Republican virtues of responsibility and standard American English (which he speaks better than the others). The unique candidate not pandering to the new meanness but appealing to the better angels of our nature.

General Powell, inviting inclusion where the others symbolize exclusion, may be a truer Republican than they.

He seems the most likely to win the general election, if the least likely to capture the primaries and convention where the Right predominates.

This may all prove to be no more than a book-marketing ploy that will self-destruct before New Hampshire.

Let it be said that General Powell is no Eisenhower. His career more nearly resembles that of Gen. George C. Marshall, the World War II Army chief of staff who became the Cold War secretary of state and defense.

But General Powell has awakened a sleeping giant. The monster beneath the Republican leadership is not the Christian Right, isolationists or anti-everything crowd. It's the silent majority of centrists and moderates.

The general may depart, but the voters he invigorated will still be out there, and not alone.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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