The Powell Potential


Washington -- This idea of Colin Powell for president is getting serious, and very interesting.

Last Friday "Nightline" delivered an unprecedented half-hour valentine. Correspondent Jeff Greenfield said Mr. Powell is "probably the single most compelling speaker in the United States today." He noted that "the message [of Powell's speech] absolutely resonates with everyone from inner-city black kids to Midwest conservative religious white folks, and the message is a blend of sacrifice, hard work, pride, humor, inspiration, love of country, 'we're all one family. . . .' It's a brilliant political message."

Yes it is. It's a Values candidacy, the best kind.

I have my own story. A few weeks ago in Dayton, I conducted a focus group with pollster Fred Steeper. He asked the participants whom they would like to see elected president, mentioning a list, including Bill Clinton. Almost as a single voice, the whole table said: "Powell!"

The Powell potential is serious because some of the arguments against it are not.

It's said that third-party or independent candidacies are unusual and must be taken with a grain of salt. It's said it's very hard to get a new party or a new candidate qualified on 50 state ballots. It's said, "Sure, he's popular now, but wait until he has to take positions." It's said that voters flee from third-party candidates as Election Day nears because they come to believe that "he can't win," and then choose between those who can.

Third-party candidates are not unusual. In this century they have almost been a commonplace, including Theodore Roosevelt (1912), Robert LaFollette (1924), Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond (1948), George Wallace (1968), John Anderson (1980), and Ross Perot (1992).

It's still 16 months until the general election. There is plenty of time to get on the ballot. Ross Perot didn't even say he was interested in running until just nine months before the election.

Don't buy the idea that Mr. Powell would have to take specific positions. A candidate who can talk credibly about "sacrifice, hard work, pride, humor, inspiration, love of country . . ." doesn't have to get specific. Bill Clinton ran by saying he'd "end welfare as we know it." Is that specific?

And Mr. Perot's best thought was, roughly, "there are lots of good ideas around Washington. I can sort 'em out without being pushed by special-interest groups." Running as an independent, Mr. Powell could accomplish that better than Mr. Perot. (If he runs as a Republican, he may lose the mantle of "outsider," and might have difficulty winning primaries from a quite conservative electorate.)

Don't believe that a third-party candidate can't win. A June 1992 Gallup poll showed Mr. Perot with 39 percent, George Bush with 31 percent, and Mr. Clinton with 25 percent, making him the third man out. In a recent ABC poll, Mr. Powell beat President Clinton head-to-head, 47 percent-39 percent.

In July of 1992 Mr. Perot dropped out of the race. Then he re-entered. In the last pre-election poll Mr. Perot was running at about 15 percent. Experts expected shrinkage as voters said, "He can't win." He got 19 percent. One third-party candidate has won: Abraham Lincoln, with 40 percent of the vote.

Mr. Powell has one obvious constituency, and a couple not so obvious. He is black, and he would get some of the black vote. Mr. Powell is the child of Jamaican immigrants and could become the darling of many recent newcomers, some 17 million of whom have arrived in America since 1970. He is a retired four-star general, and was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Perian Gulf War.

He served two tours in Vietnam. Some years ago pollster and social philosopher Daniel Yankelovich described American attitudes toward Vietnam as an "undigested lump." If you think it's since been digested, read Robert Timberg's truly wonderful new book, "The Nightingale's Song." When you're finished you won't doubt that there is still smoldering anger among many of the 9 million Americans who served in the military during Vietnam, veterans who, I bet, would disproportionately flock to the Powell banner.

Hmmm. A good slice of 33 million blacks, 17 million recent immigrants and 9 million Vietnam-era veterans. Add to that a piece of the Americans who honor "sacrifice, hard work and love of country," which is most of us. Take it seriously.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, "Think Tank."

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