IS COLIN POWELL splitting the right? Tucked away in McLean, Va., considering his options, the retired general has already touched off several tornadoes within conservative ranks.
Bill Bennett has been at the center of the maelstrom. Since his appearance on "This Week with David Brinkley" several weeks ago, where he had pleasant (though still noncommittal) words for the general, faxes and angry letters have been flying among some members of the party's right wing.
Because Mr. Bennett allowed as how he could support a candidate who was pro-choice, James Dobson, host of a popular conservative radio program, denounced Mr. Bennett publicly as having surrendered to the "pro-abortion" position -- which is a little like calling Winston Churchill "pro-Stalin" for having welcomed the Soviet Union's entry into World War II.
A Powell foe
Even Mr. Bennett's old friend Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, expressed outrage that Mr. Bennett seemed to be flirting with a Powell candidacy.
The dispute between Messrs. Bennett and Weyrich is evidence of just how a Powell candidacy could divide conservatives.
Mr. Weyrich's anti-Powell views are strong; that's why he was dismayed to see Mr. Bennett entertaining the idea of a Powell presidency with seeming equanimity. Mr. Powell, as Mr. Weyrich sees it, is the perfect embodiment of the American establishment -- the very last man to preside over the kind of change the American people seem to want.
No one disputes that General Powell is an impressive human being -- a man of character and integrity. But his political views are hardly in harmony with the majority of the Republican Party. Mr. Powell's self-description as a "Rockefeller Republican" was sufficient to convince many conservatives that he is not the man to preside over the next phase of the conservative revolution. Nelson Rockefeller was a liberal.
In some respects, so is Mr. Powell. He favors affirmative action. He is pro-choice. And he has described the Contract with America as "a little too harsh."
Paul Weyrich argues strenuously that Mr. Powell is the only candidate who, if elected, would have the moral authority to stymie the conservative Congress. The Republican majority on Capitol Hill is not large. If Mr. Powell were to forge alliances between moderate Republicans and the Democrats, he could be a far more formidable adversary for Newt Gingrich and Co. than the sitting Democratic president.
I agree. Conservatives who hope to hear more palatable rhetoric from the general than they have so far are asking to be deceived and ultimately disappointed. Haven't we had enough of candidates polishing their conservative rhetoric during campaigns, later to revert to business as usual? How can a man who last month wasn't even sure he was a Republican lead the Republican revolution?
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.