An Eisenhower Republican

November 10, 1995|By Robert Reno

IT WAS ONE of those ideas that made perfect sense and had irresistible appeal, except that it was insane.

It was the notion that Colin Powell could be the Republican nominee, even that he would run. It tells something about the state of political punditry that for so long, so many people were able to make themselves believe it would happen. What perfect fools they must feel like over at the Bob Dole campaign and in the White House, that they worked themselves into such a state of terror at the possibility of a candidacy so preposterous.

A cautious general

To begin with, Mr. Powell is no von Clausewitz. His affection for the doctrine of overwhelming force is well-known. You get the notion that his idea of a textbook battle is not Austerlitz or Chancellorsville, where in each case the victors were outnumbered, but something more on the order of Germany's conquest of Denmark in 1940. The certitude of a squalid and brutalizing campaign in which the Republican right would have opened all the spigots of spleen must have been repugnant to a commander who in the Persian Gulf war would not do land battle until the odds were so uneven that in the end his forces were using unarmed bulldozers to bury those Iraqi conscripts who still resisted.

Furthermore, Mr. Powell has correctly read the intensity of purpose of the party's ascendant conservative zealots, who are now driving its moderates into a stampede to the right. Mr. Dole has deserted his better self to be ingratiating to these people. Did anybody really believe that somebody describing himself as a Rockefeller Republican, as Mr. Powell has, could swoop down and snatch the nomination from a field of candidates who better know the temper of the party? Interestingly, Mr. Powell did not choose to describe himself as an Eisenhower Republican, a term that might have been slightly more palatable to conservatives if for no other reason than Eisenhower won the presidency.

Indeed, memories of the successes of the Eisenhower years -- the last time the GOP (very briefly) controlled both houses of Congress -- drove a few conservative Republicans to dream they could stomach a Powell candidacy. But it was a bit of a stretch to suppose that the durable fame that went with Eisenhower's reconquest of a suffering continent could be replicated in the candidacy of a general whose wartime glory derived from television briefings about the ''liberation'' of a despotic desert monarchy smaller than New Jersey.

As for Colin Powell's resemblance to Nelson Rockefeller, well, I suppose you could make a case for it. Except that it would be like suggesting a soda jerk has a resemblance to Ross Perot because they're both jerks. It was Rockefeller's fortune and his willingness to spend it that made him a seemingly viable candidate long after it should have been clear that the national party's hard core would not have him. A general's retirement pay, even supplemented by a book advance, does not put Mr. Powell in this league. Anyway, who's to say the Powell flirtation with the presidency was a waste of time? It sold books, didn't it?

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Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

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