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Powell touches the unoccupied center in politics


PARIS -- Colin Powell's social and political views, now that he has begun to make them known, have dismayed those Republicans who wanted to draft him as their presidential or vice-presidential candidate.

In what he has said and written there has been nothing "to suggest that he supports the domestic reform that Americans voted for in 1994" (as one Republican commentator puts it). He has not embraced the program of Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans, as Republicans expected him to do. He has challenged that program, without explicitly saying so. On the other hand he certainly has not endorsed that other "domestic reform that Americans voted for" in 1992, when the electorate put the "New Democrat" Bill Clinton into office.

Mr. Powell has thus far made sensible, and sometimes passionate, comments that reflect centrist, common-sense judgments, his own experience of poverty and racism, and of the army and Washington office. Nothing he has said identifies him with the ideologies that now dominate Washington party politics.

On welfare

He objects to "demonizing" the poor, as if they were responsible for America's plight. He suggests that there are "welfare kings" in corporate offices and Washington lobbying firms who deserve the hostility unwed mothers have been getting: "You don't see the same level of outrage over political welfare for sugar beet growers or ethanol producers." He was also, as chief of the joint staffs, forthrightly against institutionalizing the place of homosexuals in the military, and he is still angry at those who launched the United States into the Vietnam War in pursuit of a "bankrupt" policy.

These opinions would seem to disqualify him as candidate of either Republican or Democratic parties, as they exist today. His statements suggest a non-ideological and socially conscious centrism which puts one most in mind of the pre-1960s Democratic Party, before its takeover by minority advocates and political correctness.

A Rockefeller Republican

His views are also perfectly reconcilable with what in another time was called Liberal Republicanism. It dominated Republican presidential politics from the nomination of Wendell Willkie in 1940 to the defeat of Gerald Ford in 1980. Richard Nixon may have hated the Liberal Republicans, who attempted to block his ascent in their party, but his policies in office were those of Liberal Republicanism, and on social issues his administration's record was good.

Mr. Powell threatens to bring back the social conscience, which, as the Republican commentators say, would disqualify him for ++ high office under Republican auspices. One may doubt that he would want the Democratic Party's nomination, in view of the Democrats' present condition, and in any case Mr. Clinton stands in his way. Hence the talk, Mr. Powell's own, and that of the media, of a third party -- a desperate enterprise which is extremely unlikely to succeed.

Yet Mr. Powell addresses an electorate that has largely been ousted from the established parties. He has thus far spoken without demagogy and with sensible words and a sense of humor.

The country is far from knowing who he really is, and the present wave of interest in his possible candidacy is in considerable part the result of a press appetite for novelty and controversy.

However, there is an unoccupied center in American politics. The existing parties are in the intellectual grip of warring sectarians, and (see the Packwood Diaries for details) in the pay of factional and commercial interests, thanks to the highly profitable domination of the electoral process which has been handed to commercial television.

These might be conditions able to cause a structural upheaval in American politics, bringing the birth of a new movement, consigning old ones to history.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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