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F.Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who sadly passed away from COVID complications, will be remembered for many successes and failures. His legacy will have critics on the right (he was a sell-out who backed Obama) and left (he misled us about weapons of mass destruction), but I can’t help but think what if he was the future of the Republican Party?
Counterfactual statements are always messy, but bear with me. There is reason to believe that Powell was Ronald Reagan’s vision of the bright future of the Republican Party. And Powell might have defeated Bill Clinton in 1996. Powell would have become America’s first black president. Assuming re-election, he would have been president when 9/11 happened. Everything after that would probably have been very different.
And, of course, you can hardly imagine a stronger contrast than what ultimately happened to America (and the GOP): President Donald J. Trump.
That could actually have happened. Fourteen months before the 1996 presidential election, a Time / CNN poll found: “If the 1996 presidential election took place today, Colin Powell, who is running on the GOP ticket, would beat Bill Clinton by 46 to 38 percent …”
Then why didn’t he run? Powell’s wife, Alma, was likely the contributing factor. As Howard Fineman wrote in 1995, “She is concerned about her husband’s safety and values her privacy …” There is also the fact that Powell was a Liberal Republican from the start in a right-wing party. Powell was out of step with the conservative zeitgeist on a number of issues including abortion and affirmative action. Gary Bauer, chairman of the Family Research Council, called him “Bill Clinton with Bows”.
Even so, that year Republicans nominated Bob Dole – not someone like TV evangelist Pat Robertson or right-wing populist Pat Buchanan. And of course, the GOP would end up with Donald Trump, whose policies were just as liberal as Powell’s and whose personal and professional life were decidedly less conservative. We can only wonder what would have happened if Powell had used everything he had to become the GOP standard bearer and then the leader of the free world.
This, I believe, was the hope of no less conservative icon than Ronald Reagan. Consider a 1991 interview with Larry King with then-former President Reagan. The Gipper raved about his “great admiration for him and a personal sense of friendship” for Powell, who had been his national security adviser. When asked about future Republican leaders (like Dick Cheney), he disagreed.
Later, in 1993, Reagan invited Powell to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and presented him with an award. “I know I shouldn’t be saying this, but I have to make a confession. Maybe I just had an ulterior motive in inviting Colin Powell to my presidential library today, ”Reagan said. “You see, I hope that maybe one day he’ll return the favor and invite me over.”
Revisionist history cannot start from the most positive alternative version. A Powell presidency might have brought us a whole different disaster. But as the paleoconservative writer Jim Antle suggests, the Iraq war would probably not have happened: “As commander in chief, he would have made the decisions. He would have been less inclined to fall under the influence of Cheney and the neoconservatives if they had held prominent roles in his government at all, ”writes Antle.
No war in Iraq probably means no Obama and no Trump. Besides, Bill Clinton (and America) would have been spared the whole ordeal of Monica Lewinsky. Regarding the GOP, Antle writes: “Bush republicanism might not have been best preserved by another Bush.”
Instead, Powell watched the party slip away from him. In 2014, Powell was asked about his political affiliation at Meet the Press. “I’m still a Republican,” he said. “And I think the Republican Party needs me more than the Democratic Party needs me.”
By 2021, he said he could “no longer call himself a Republican”. Between those years, Donald J. Trump became the Republican standard-bearer and then America’s President.
For those who say Trump was the inevitable conclusion of the GOP, I present President Powell as Exhibit A. Yes, the Grand Old Party hid a long-dormant poisonous strain, but it didn’t have to come to a head. It’s a shame no leader like Powell showed up, but ultimately Republicans own their decisions.
In the run-up to the Second Iraq War, Powell became famous for talking about his so-called Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it. Almost immediately, this slogan became a judgment on the failed war, which it helped to level. But it’s also an indictment against Republican voters.
They broke it in 2016. And now, with Trump, they bought it.