Colin Powell: The Right Man for the Times : A Powell campaign would force Clinton to define issues and expose the Republicans as right-wing pawns.

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at 76327.1675@compuserve.com.

Colin Powell for President? Perhaps. Not since Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower turned politician have we had someone with such impeccable conservative credentials make so much sense. He's the radical right's worst nightmare. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to be a fiscal conservative and still be pro-gun control, pro-choice, for separation of church and state and positive about affirmative action.

He has had the courage to oppose "demonizing" people on welfare, warn that welfare cuts hurt children and challenge the hypocrisy of ignoring the true "welfare kings," the lawyers and lobbyists who rip off the government in grand style. As he told the Wall Street Journal this week, "Why do all of these corporations pour a ton of money into . . . the next election? The answer is they are buying affirmative action, they are buying preference, they are buying quotas--all the things we think are terrible when the same terms are applied to minorities and those of our citizens we think are less advantaged." I hope this isn't the kiss of death, but I think the man's a progressive.

I would have expected no less from someone who was raised in the Bronx by immigrant garment worker parents. That was my world, and while I have no clear memory of Powell, we were in the same class at the City College of New York. There's got to be a bit of the bleeding heart in anyone who got his big break in life thanks to CCNY. As Powell recalls: "I received a free college education because New York taxed its citizens to make this investment in the sons and daughters of immigrants and the working class." Total tuition at this most excellent college was $10 a year, reflecting a commitment to quality education for the poor that is no longer honored in any state.

At CCNY, Powell was devoted to the ROTC while I was leafletting the campus against militarism, but I find little in his book with which to disagree. Even on Vietnam, which so bitterly divided our generation: "We had been sent to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt. Our political leaders had led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anti-communism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anti-colonialism and civil strife beyond the East-West conflict." Sound familiar? That was the basic argument of the anti-war movement.

Powell is clear that the military preoccupation of the Cold War world is now irrelevant and that "the new order will be defined by trade . . . rather than by armies glaring at each other across borders." Would he be the first President with the courage to reduce the military budget to peacetime levels?

Powell is an economic conservative. He is strongly committed to ending the deficit and believes that job creation by the private sector is "the best answer to most of our social ills." But he cautions:

"Because I express these beliefs, some people have rushed to hang a Republican label around my neck. I am not, however, knee-jerk, anti-government. I was born a New Deal, Depression-era kid. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in my boyhood home. Government helped my parents by providing cheap public subway systems so that they could get to work, and public schools for their children, and protection under the law to make sure their labor was not exploited. . . . Social Security allowed my parents to live a dignified retirement. Medicare gave them access to quality care during long, painful terminal illnesses."

True, he is "put off" by "patronizing liberals who claim to know what is best for society but devote little thought to who will eventually pay the bills." On the other hand, he acknowledges that, "The hard-won civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which I benefited from, was fought for by presently derided liberals, courageous leaders."

While Republican candidates pander to the Christian Coalition, it is reassuring that Powell is "troubled by the political passion of those on the extreme right who seem to claim divine wisdom on political as well as spiritual matters. I am disturbed by the class and racial undertones beneath the surface of their rhetoric."

What he is is a reasonable man. And at a time when the center has collapsed, this is no small contribution. I hope he runs as an independent. In the best of all worlds, a Powell candidacy would force Clinton to define progressive politics beyond being merely pro-choice and for gun control, since Powell agrees with him on both. It would expose the Republican candidate, be it Robert Dole or Phil Gramm, as a captive of the right wing. And, it is hoped, Ross Perot would finally fade away.

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