WASHINGTON -- You might think that Sen. Bob Dole is the happiest politician in America today, with a string of primary victories that guarantees he'll be the Republican nominee for president.
But the Kansas senator has got to be troubled, knowing that retired Gen. Colin Powell has told me that he will not become Dole's running mate. Every responsible poll indicates that without Powell on his ballot, Dole will lose to President Clinton badly.
Without Powell, Dole surely will figure that he cannot be the nation-healing candidate that the better side of him wants to be. He will have to do what every successful GOP presidential candidate has done since Dwight Eisenhower: play the race card and pander to a "white backlash" and the paranoia of "angry white men."
The Buchanan problem
That is because, without the remarkably popular Powell on the Republican ticket, Dole will not take many black votes away from Clinton or Hispanic votes, or moderate white votes. So Dole will need desperately the votes of the ardent Pat Buchanan followers.
With Powell opting out of the 1996 campaign, out goes the Dole who might have reverted to the fair-minded politician who favored affirmative action and who spoke up loudly for food stamps and other programs to support America's neediest people.
It isn't lost on Dole and most of his advisers that recent GOP presidential candidates have had remarkable success by dissing and dismissing the black vote and appealing nakedly to white insecurities and fears. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush all got elected by spreading contempt for black "welfare queens" and "lazy black bucks" and magnifying the threat of black rapists and murderers terrorizing white America. Dole knows that such tactics enabled the Republicans to steal the "solid South" from the Democrats and have almost made the GOP the majority party.
I still doubt that Dole ever intended to pick Powell as his running mate. There are serious risks in a racially charged society for a 73-year-old presidential candidate to put a young black man within a heartbeat of the presidency.
A choice of Powell, 58, would have provoked at least a small rebellion within the group that has been a core supporter of the GOP the superconservative Buchananites. Even before Powell said Dole must suit up another political gladiator, Dole was laying the base for a campaign based on his making the race card trumps.
Dole is sponsoring an anti-black monstrosity called "The Equal Opportunity Act of 1996." It would forbid even tiny efforts by government to broaden job and other opportunities for blacks, Hispanics and women. It is craven pandering to angry white men.
Black columnist William Raspberry of the Washington Post has written that Dole's bill is "a dreadful piece of legislation that can only do mischief." Black writer DeWayne Wickham says in USA Today that the bill is "the neutron bomb of civil rights" that will bring Dole "the wrath of black voters come November."
I understand Powell's reasons for refusing to run for president and now for refusing to run along side Dole. Still, it makes me worry when I think that his candidacy might have spared America the upcoming orgy of intensified racial polarization.
It seems that every break of fate consigns us to a deepening tragedy in which we are not just in each other's faces; we are at each other's throats. Election '96 seems destined to turn millions more of us into stranglers.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 3/21/96