In search for a running mate, Kerry should call Colin Powell

April 29, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Who will be John Kerry's running mate? Speculation runs rampant these days. I have a suggestion: Colin L. Powell.

Yes, I know Mr. Powell is a Republican. But judging by Mr. Kerry's buddy-buddy relationship with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, Mr. Kerry seems like an equal-opportunity employer.

Mr. McCain fed speculation that he might get Mr. Kerry's vice presidential nod back on March 10 by saying, "Obviously, I would entertain it." Mr. McCain said this with a twinkle in his eye, as if he enjoyed giving paroxysms to Team Bush after the hard time they gave him in the 2000 presidential primaries.

But he has backed off the Kerry speculation. "No, no and no," he said April 11 on NBC's Meet the Press. "I'm a Republican," he declared, endorsing President Bush's re-election.

Nevertheless, as Republicans go, Mr. McCain sometimes has been a more effective surrogate for his fellow Vietnam veteran than Mr. Kerry's own spin doctors have been. Mr. McCain has often criticized Bush policies and actually called Mr. Kerry his "friend" in public, which is anathema to many in the GOP's conservative wing.

On Sunday, Mr. McCain was asked on CBS' Face the Nation about a fellow Republican who called Mr. Kerry "Hanoi John" for Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities three decades ago. Mr. McCain said, "I'd like to see us put the war that was over more than 30 years ago behind us."

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry served honorably, Mr. McCain said, adding: "I wish we could move forward and face the challenges that lie ahead of us."

Well said.

And now is the time for Mr. Kerry to reach out to swing and undecided voters. Too few know who he is. To seize the public's imagination, Mr. Kerry needs bold gestures that distinguish him not only from Mr. Bush but also from the loony-liberal, "flip-flopper" image with which Team Bush is trying to smear him.

And the Massachusetts senator has to do it while running against an incumbent who, thanks to his mighty pulpit, can't scratch his head without igniting a firing squad of news cameras.

Which is why I say that if Mr. Kerry likes Mr. McCain he should love Mr. Powell. Mr. Kerry choosing Mr. Powell could be the biggest blockbuster running mate decision since Republican Abraham Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson, a pro-states' rights Democrat, in 1864.

Like Mr. McCain, Mr. Powell is a Vietnam veteran with strong national security credentials and a famous independent streak, a quality that appeals to independent voters.

Plus he brings a bonus to the table: He is one of America's most respected people in the polls, across political lines.

On the hot-button wedge issues, Mr. Powell is an outspoken supporter of affirmative action who also leans in favor of abortion rights and gun control. Members of his party have accused him of being a Democrat in disguise.

Of course, Mr. Powell as Mr. Kerry's running mate would require the cooperation of Mr. Powell. And he might go for it, provided Mr. Kerry makes a simple offer: In a Kerry administration, he would be able to do what he wanted to do under Mr. Bush.

"Think of it, Colin," Mr. Kerry could say. "This time you can actually be consulted and get your agenda done without Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or any of the rest of their unilateralist cronies getting in your way."

By all accounts, the notion might be one that Mr. Powell, like Mr. McCain, would be willing to "entertain." In Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, Mr. Powell comes off as a very reluctant warrior who supported Mr. Bush's war in Iraq in spite of misgivings about the wisdom of the conflict and the chaotic violence with Shiites and Sunnis that has followed. To do it, Mr. Powell had to cast aside his famous "Powell Doctrine," which calls for clear goals, overwhelming military force and a clearly stated exit strategy. Thus the leading voice for the lessons that we all should have learned in Vietnam was muzzled.

So maybe Mr. Powell might like the idea of actually being listened to. Mr. Bush is reported to have asked Mr. Powell to be his running mate in 2000, but Mr. Powell turned him down. He preferred secretary of state. Maybe he would settle for a Cabinet post if Mr. Kerry offered it, but let that be Mr. Powell's decision.

Either way, Mr. Kerry should take him to dinner. It might not lead to much, but they'll have a good meal. They'll also have fun watching all of the gossip they would stir up.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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