The New Campaigns : CANDIDATES : Could Powell Be Drafted as Democrat?

Ronald Brownstein is a national correspondent for The Times. Sam Fulwood III is a reporter in The Times' Washington bureau

Are Democrats missing an opportunity by ceding Gen. Colin L. Powell's political future to the GOP?

With the exhilarating success of the Gulf War, talk is already beginning of possible electoral careers for the Pentagon leaders burnished by victory. There is ample precedent: Throughout U.S. history, generals in successful wars--from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight D. Eisenhower--have been rewarded with the White House. Even if the wars aren't comparable, Powell and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf have become true military heroes to a society that has not known any for decades.

Although Florida Republicans are hoping to draft Schwarzkopf for a Senate bid, he seems unlikely to trade his fatigues for a candidate's general-issue blue suit. But the silky steeliness displayed during the crisis by Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has revived discussion of moving Vice President Dan Quayle out to make room for the general on the 1992 Republican ticket.

Yet there's some evidence to suggest that if Powell ever decided to seek elected office, he might be at least as comfortable running as a Democrat.

No one, of course, can imagine Powell carrying the Democratic banner next year against President George Bush, his commander-in-chief. But Powell's ultimate political fate does not now seem likely to be decided in the coming election.

It's true that many Republican strategists say nightly prayers for Bush to replace Quayle with Powell in 1992. In a recent poll, grass-roots Republicans--by a resounding 47%-29%--said they would make that trade in a minute.

But with the Gulf War victory so dramatically strengthening Bush's reelection prospects--his approval rating is the highest ever recorded--few now believe he will dump Quayle.

So if Powell, who is only 53, has a future in national politics, it is likely to come in 1996. And, as the general's career unfolds, Democrats should not assume his loyalties lie irrevocably with the GOP.

To begin with, no one knows Powell's political affiliation. Like many accomplished military commanders--Eisenhower throughout the 1940s, for example--Powell has kept everyone guessing.

In the Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood where he is registered to vote, Powell has not stated a party preference. Though he has prospered in Republican administrations, he also thrived in the Carter Administration.

Publicly, Powell brushes aside all questions about his political ideology and ambitions. Privately, he is no more forthcoming. Even among those on a first-name basis, people such as retired Maj. Gen. Chuck Bussey, virtually none can locate where the man stands in a partisan landscape. "I know Colin, and have known him for a long time," says Bussey, who is black. "But I cannot honestly tell you what are his political positions. I can tell you, however, that proves how great his political skills are."

As reticent as he is, though, Powell has publicly expressed views on enough foreign and domestic subjects to give some clues of his leanings. Clearly, his positions on foreign policy and the aggressive use of U.S. force abroad fall within the mainstream of the GOP, not the post-McGovern Democrats.

But on domestic issues, Powell has signaled values that reflect the experiences that shaped him--a course that led him down roads many Republicans see only from inside their cars, with the windows sealed and the doors locked.

Powell is, after all, not a product of comfortable suburbia, but a son of Jamaican immigrants who was born in Harlem, grew up in the South Bronx, watched his parents struggle to earn a living as a sales clerk and a seamstress in New York's garment district, attended the public City College of New York and joined the ROTC during the 1950s, partly because it was one of the few institutions offering opportunities to blacks.

Though some blacks have criticized Powell for being too cautious in addressing issues of concern to African-Americans, he has, on several occasions, pointedly indicated that he has not forgotten those struggles. A few years ago, he told a dinner of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, "The struggle will not be over until every American is able to find his or her own place in our society, limited only by his or her own ability."

More recently, Powell displayed impatience with the progress of that struggle, when he told a congressional committee questioning the large number of minority soldiers in the Gulf War that he "wish(ed) that there were other activities in our society . . . as open as the military is to upward mobility, to achievement, to allowing them in. I wish that corporate America, I wish the trade unions around the nation, would show the same level of openness and opportunity to minorities."

Similarly, Powell expressed a respect for non-military public spending not often heard at the White House, when he declared, in 1989, that his life is "the story of the kid of an inner-city immigrant family who benefited from living in a city that treated its obligation to educate and provide for its youth as the most important investment it could make."

Republicans pondering the possibilities of enlisting Powell as a candidate are of two minds on these deviations from laissez-faire, colorblind-society orthodoxy. Some believe the political opportunity Powell represents for the GOP is so great that the party would accommodate almost any heresy on domestic policy.

"The Republican Party's almost inadvertent catch of Eisenhower forever changed the party: It became the internationalist party and rejected isolationism," said GOP consultant John Buckley. "If Colin Powell became a leader of the Republican Party, . . . he could lead it in a new direction."

But others in the GOP aren't sure the fit would be quite that snug--for either side. Asked whether Powell would feel more comfortable seeking office someday as a Republican or a Democrat, his former White House colleague said flatly, "I don't think we know."

Asked whether Republicans would feel comfortable with a man holding Powell's views on their national ticket, this former senior GOP official was even less optimistic. "People today are reacting to a leader who executed quite well a military operation," he said. "Once you set that aside and get to the man, I would hope those same people would respect him for what he's about. But I think there would be some who would not; who would not agree (with him) that there is a struggle (for racial equality) still going on."

Of course, with his foreign-policy views Powell would scrape against some encrusted conventions in today's Democratic Party. But Powell's views do not represent a new mold for the party. Rather, if he choose a political career as a Democrat, Powell could revive the tattered tradition of the party's Henry (Scoop) Jackson wing, which combines an assertive domestic policy with tough convictions on defending U.S. interests abroad.

The bottom line is that Powell--a man whose public approval rating stood at a hagiographic 77%-4% in one recent national survey--presents intriguing opportunities for both parties, not just the Republicans. Nominating Powell to a future national ticket offers Republicans the chance to cement their presidential majority by breaking the Democratic hold on black votes. For Democrats, conversely, a national slot for Powell could allow the party to simultaneously affirm its commitment to equal opportunity and dispatch persistent doubts about whether it is tough enough to protect American interests in an unstable world.

As long as Powell forswears a political career, this will remain merely interesting speculation. But given his abiding interest in demonstrating that an African-American can handle any responsibility--not to mention an understated ambition that has nonetheless propelled him very far, very fast--his former White House colleague says, "it is not inconceivable" that Powell could change his mind.

If Powell hints even the slightest interest, and Democrats are uncharacteristically alert, it could set off the kind of bipartisan bidding war not seen since 1948, when activists in both parties tried to draft Eisenhower as their presidential candidate. Meantime, Americans of all ideologies would be well-served to hear more of Powell's views on the battles yet to be fought at home.

DR, RANDY LYHUS / For The Times

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World