Powell's Political Doctrine

Does the general have another war in him?

By Robert A. George
|  Thursday, May 28, 2009  |  Updated 12:13 AM EDT
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Colin Powell is not scared of Rush and Dick. He's staying in the GOP.

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Based on his recent Face The Nation appearance, Colin Powell doesn't look like he's willing to back down in his war of words with Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney:

“Rush will not get his wish and Mr. Cheney was misinformed – I am still a Republican,” Powell said in a much-anticipated interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” two weeks after Cheney suggested on the same show that the retired general had left the party by endorsing Barack Obama last fall.

Powell outlined his party bona fides, noting his votes for and services under a string of Republican presidents, and said it was not up to Cheney and Limbaugh – the radio host has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism since Powell's cross-party endorsement last year – to determine who belonged in the GOP.

“Neither [Cheney] nor Rush Limbaugh are members of the membership committee of the Republican Party,” Powell said.

Powell suggested that there were a number of moderates in the party who shared his concerns but were hesitant to speak out “because if you are vocal you’re going to get your voice mail filled up and get lots of e-mails like I did.”

And, on another political talk show, a certain former high-ranking Republican suggested that he wanted the party to be more inclusive than either Limbaugh or Cheney:

Powell also found a less likely ally in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said on "Meet the Press" that "I don't want to pick a fight with Dick Cheney, but the fact is, the Republican party has to be a broad party that appeals across the country," adding, "To be a national party, you have to have a big enough tent that you inevitably have fights inside the tent."

Pointing to President Ronald Reagan's adeptness at appealing to Democrats and independents as he carried 49 states in 1984, Gingrich – himself a potential 2012 contender for the party's presidential nomination – concluded, "I think Republicans are going to be very foolish if thy run around deciding that they're going to see how much they can purge us down to the smallest possible space."

Powell must find the questions of his loyalty to the party rather daunting, given how he's managed to prove it on the political level in the past: 

Because he had been a career military man, Powell never officially declared his party affiliation when he was national security adviser under Ronald Reagan and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. After retiring from the service, he wrote the best-seller, My American Journey. There was a frenzy around the country when the book came out in 1995, with lines around the bookstores when he had signings. Much of it was attached to the possibility that he might run for president: Now that he was a free man and could enter politics, would he enter the GOP primary?

When these questions were dominating the media, what did several movement conservatives do? Before Powell made any decision, conservatives launched a pre-emptive strike to keep him out of the race. Then-head of the Family Research Council Gary Bauer labeled him "Bill Clinton with ribbons."  At a November National Press Club press conference, the real pile-on began: Paul Weyrich called him too "risk-averse" to be president. Frank Gaffney called him "too cautious." Morton Blackwell pushed the line that Powell was getting attention because he was black (horrors!).

The entire spectacle was fascinating:  A handful of agenda-driven individuals -- none of whom had seen more "combat" beyond that of the political variety -- were labeling a popular decorated veteran, essentially, a coward.

In any event, Powell ultimately didn't run -- reportedly because he didn't have his wife's blessing.

Nonetheless, the following summer, Powell still came to '96 GOP candidate Bob Dole's aid and spoke -- for the first time -- at the GOP Convention, proudly starting his speech, "My fellow Americans, my fellow Republicans." He could have sat out that convention -- given how the so-called base treated him. Appearing at the convention was hardly going to sell him any more books.

Four years later, he also addressed the 2000 convention. By then, of course, there was something of a quid pro quo. It was basically understood that Bush was would name him secretary of state: He was providing Bush as much "adult" foreign policy cover as Dick Cheney was providing "gravitas" in the vice president's slot.

Point is as much as Limbaugh or Cheney might want to call Colin Powell disloyal, he's been there for his presidents and his party. While he's never backed down from his moderate beliefs on domestic issues (except for gays in the military), conservatives opened war on him 14 years ago.

He's still demanding a a place at the table of his party -- whether it wants him or not.

But another disaffected conservative, Bruce Bartlett  -- who now labels himself an independent -- essentially pushes Powell to go even further:

[At] the end of the day, the job of a political party is to win elections and to win elections it must be inclusive, not exclusive. Thus the ultimate message Powell has to offer Republicans is the most persuasive one of all—follow him and win or follow Cheney-Limbaugh-Palin and lose. Personally, I would like to see Powell follow in the steps of Dwight D. Eisenhower and run for president—I’ll sign up for his campaign today even if it means having to rejoin the Republican Party. But if he is serious about not wishing to do that, then Powell has a responsibility to help those who share his vision by lending his enormous credibility, popularity and fund-raising ability to their efforts. If he fails to do so he risks being seen by history as someone who walked away when the times demanded that those who share his beliefs stand and fight for what they believe.

Throughout history many of mankind’s greatest leaders have been those who took on leadership responsibilities only very reluctantly. I hope Powell changes his mind and becomes the leader that the Republican Party desperately needs. After all, he is the one who said, in essence, that he would rather fight than switch.

At 72, Colin Powell is probably too old to contemplate running for president (though a Powell vs. Obama match in 2012 could be one for the ages).  However, it would be beneficial to, perhaps, have Powell write another memoir -- explaining what being a Republican means to him. He's already known for articulating the "Powell Doctrine" -- a vision of what circumstances the country should launch military action.  Now maybe the time for him to articulate a political version of that -- a doctrine for the GOP in an uncertain economic time, with huge entitlement obligations facing an aging nation, as well as articulating a broader foreign policy.

Does Powell have that in him? Given that Cheney is working on his book, perhaps Powell can see this as a way to make his own competitive marker. The former vice president doesn't have to get the last word on Iraq, the war on terror -- or the Republican Party.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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