Citizen Powell may find the public less eager to listen


WASHINGTON -- In bowing out as a 1996 presidential prospect, retired Gen. Colin Powell declared his intention to be an active member of the Republican Party and to "try to assist the party in broadening its appeal." Specifically, he said he thought he could "help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln."

The comment contained within it the implied acknowledgment that the GOP gives short shrift to fellow African Americans.

In league with Kemp

And in making that observation he put himself in league with another prominent Republican who decided not to seek the party's presidential nomination next year -- former congressman and Bush cabinet member Jack Kemp.

Mr. Powell's decision not to run, like Mr. Kemp's, has deprived their party of an influential voice among the GOP candidates on the very matter on which they both have spoken out -- the party's need to take positions that will make more blacks feel they have a home there.

Both men have struck moderate postures, for example, on the issue of affirmative action for blacks in the workplace.

Mr. Powell has taken other positions that would broaden and humanize the party, as in his expressed call for an adequate safety net for children "who may be in need and at risk." He says he will continue to speak out about his concerns as a non-candidate.

But Mr. Powell is likely to find out, as Mr. Kemp already has, that his voice as a non-candidate doesn't have the weight and resonance that it would have had as a candidate.

The best forum

The best forum is the presidential campaign. It commands public and national media attention like none other. Mr. Powell will be able to continue on the speech and lecture circuit, but he will draw broad coverage only when he says something particularly newsworthy -- or outrageous.

If he decides, for example, to attack one of the active Republican candidates, that will generate news stories and TV coverage, but it is not his style to do so. As for moving the party he has just joined more to the center on issues like abortion and racial accommodation, his clout in that party dominated by social conservatives has been vastly diminished by his non-candidacy.

Mr. Powell no doubt will be treated almost reverentially by most of the declared candidates in the hope of winning his endorsement. And he will continue to be in great demand for public appearances, especially as a party fund raiser.

Deaf ears

But he is likely to find that, like Mr. Kemp, his advice on how the party ought to conduct itself to broaden its base will fall on deaf ears among the dominant conservative forces controlling the party. They are of a distinctly exclusionary bent when it comes to the social issues that are at the core of their ideological posture.

Mr. Powell may suppose that he has taken the easier way out by deciding not to be a presidential candidate and thus dodging the strenuous demands of daily life on the campaign trail.

In a physical sense, that's probably so. But in terms of getting his views out to the public and being a real force in the direction of the Republican Party, his decision not to run will make it much harder for him to achieve his stated goals.

Indeed, he is surrendering a singular opportunity, if he disagrees with important aspects of the Gingrich agenda, particularly in what he seems to perceive as its insensitivity to the needs of the poor, the elderly and children, to moderate that agenda. Today, Speaker Newt Gingrich exerts tangible influence in Washington that often seems to eclipse that of President Clinton. A President Powell in the White House would put Speaker Gingrich in his proper perspective, in terms of both power and persona.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Powell would have offered a substantial rallying point for moderate Republicans who have been shunted aside and, often, cowed into silence by the stranglehold on the GOP that conservatives have achieved ever since the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national political leader. These moderates may continue to look to Mr. Powell, but without great hope that he will lead the party out of what they see as its dark present. Citizen Powell isn't likely to cast the shadow over GOP affairs that Candidate Powell would have.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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