Once again, a presidential campaign has begun with a notable lack of popular enthusiasm for any of the prospective major-party nominees. Democrat Bill Clinton continues to appeal to about the same 43% of the electorate that voted for him in 1992. On the Republican side, Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm are running hard, along with a roomful of hopefuls struggling for national recognition. But so far none of these candidacies is drawing many oohs and ahs.
This lack of excitement about what the two major parties have to offer is not new to U.S. presidential politics; today as before, the disenchantment has something to do with the personalities of the candidates. But on a more fundamental level it reflects a darkening mood among Americans. The growing distrust of the professional political class, the frustration with the simplistic nostrums peddled by the ideological left and right alike, the feeling that the political procedure has gone awry--all have left many voters unhappy with both the governing process and the choices they sense will be presented next year.
Which brings us to Colin Powell.
LOOK OF A LEADER: The retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has begun a multi-city tour to promote his newly published memoirs. Inescapably, this commercial enterprise bodes to become indistinguishable from a national political progression. For at this stage in his life, Powell--articulate, intelligent, experienced in Washington politics and in global affairs, a true American success story--can accurately be called charismatic. Ready or not, he is about to become an object of the closest political scrutiny. In our current political culture, with its deficit of leadership, Powell has the look of a leader about him.
He says he will make a decision on his future in the next few months. Only now is he beginning to outline his views on domestic issues. He prefers adoption to abortion but supports a woman's right to choose. A gun owner, he favors gun control. He supports some affirmative action. He opposes mandatory prayer in the schools but supports moments of silence. All this seems to place him in the broad, moderate middle--not an ideal place for anyone hoping to get the nomination at the 1996 GOP convention. If Powell is truly thinking about presidential politics, that thinking may well lie outside the two-party system.
TWO KEY FACTORS: The huge difficulty in running for the presidency without the support of a national party organization doesn't necessarily mean that such a campaign is impossible. Two things right now promote a Powell candidacy. The first is voter interest in having another choice, an alternative to what the two parties may offer. The other is the perceived strength of Powell's character.
It's always possible the Powell bubble will burst in a few months. It's also possible that he just may be the instrument to re-energize a public fed up with the nastiness, the phoniness and the cynicism of politics.