Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who sadly passed away from COVID complications, will be remembered for many accomplishments and failings. His legacy will have detractors on the right (he was a sellout who endorsed Obama) and the left (he misled us about WMDs), but I can’t help thinking what if he had been the future of the Republican Party?
Counterfactuals are always messy but bear with me. There is reason to believe that Powell was Ronald Reagan’s vision of the Republican Party’s bright future. And Powell might well have defeated Bill Clinton in 1996. That would have made Powell America’s first Black president. Assuming re-election, he would have been president when 9/11 happened. Everything thereafter would, likely, have been very different.
And, of course, it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than what eventually happened to America (and the GOP): President Donald J. Trump.
This actually could have happened. Fourteen months before the 1996 presidential election, a Time/CNN poll found that “If the 1996 presidential election were held today, Colin Powell, running on the GOP ticket, would beat Bill Clinton 46 percent to 38 percent…”
So why didn’t he run? Powell’s wife, Alma, probably was the deciding factor. As Howard Fineman wrote in 1995, “she worries about her husband's safety and cherishes her privacy…” There’s also the fact that Powell was, from the start, a liberal Republican in a party that was moving rightward. On a range of issues like abortion and affirmative action, Powell was out-of-step with the conservative zeitgeist. Gary Bauer, who was head of the Family Research Council, called him “Bill Clinton with ribbons.”
Still, Republicans nominated Bob Dole—not someone like televangelist Pat Robertson or right-wing populist Pat Buchanan—that year. And, of course, the GOP ultimately would end up with Donald Trump, whose policies were just as liberal as Powell’s, and whose personal and professional life were decidedly less conservative. We can only wonder what would have happened if Powell had put everything he had into being the GOP standard bearer, and then the leader of the free world.
This, I believe, was the hope of no less a conservative icon than Ronald Reagan. Consider a Larry King interview from 1991 with then-former President Reagan. The Gipper gushed about his “great admiration of him and a personal feeling of friendship” for Powell, who had been his National Security Adviser. When asked about future Republican leaders (like Dick Cheney), he demurred.
Later, in 1993, Reagan invited Powell to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and presented him with an award. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I have a confession to make. I just might have had an ulterior motive for inviting Colin Powell up here today to my presidential library,” Reagan said. “You see, I am hoping that perhaps one day he’ll return the favor and invite me to his.”
Revisionist history cannot assume the most positive alternate version. A Powell presidency might have given us a completely different sort of disaster. But as paleoconservative writer Jim Antle suggests, the Iraq war would likely not have happened: “As commander-in-chief, the decisions would have been his. He would have been less inclined to fall under the sway of Cheney and the neoconservatives, if they occupied prominent roles in his administration at all,” Antle writes.
No Iraq war probably means no Obama and no Trump. What is more, Bill Clinton (and America) would have been spared the whole Monica Lewinsky ordeal. As for the GOP, Antle writes, “Bush Republicanism might not have been best preserved by another Bush.”
Instead of that, Powell watched the party slip away from him. In 2014, Powell was asked on Meet the Press about his political affiliation. “I’m still a Republican,” he said. “And I think the Republican Party needs me more than the Democratic Party needs me.”
By 2021, he said that he could “no longer call himself a Republican.” In between those years, Donald J. Trump became the Republican’s standard bearer, and then America’s president.
For those who say Trump was the GOP’s inevitable conclusion, I present President Powell as Exhibit A. Yes, the Grand Old Party hid a long-dormant toxic strain, but it didn’t necessarily have to come to a head. It’s a shame that a leader like Powell didn’t emerge, but ultimately, Republicans own their decisions.
In the run-up to the second Iraq war, Powell became famous for talking about his so-called Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it. Almost immediately, this slogan became a verdict on the failed war that he helped pave the way for. But it’s also an indictment of Republican voters.
They broke it in 2016. And now, with Trump, they bought it.