Three weeks into America's version of tulip mania, the Powell swoon continues. By now Colin Powell, mystery man, has turned into a national Rorschach test. Everybody sees in him what he wants to see and is pleased.
For centrists, he is, of course, a dream come true, sound on every issue from abortion to taxes. His credo - Republican fiscal conservatism but with Democratic compassion - is so perfectly oxymoronic it makes a centrist's heart flutter. And all this in a person of color.Conservatives are also seeing in Powell what they want. The more optimistic see President Powell as a passive monarch, reigning with dignity while the country is run by Congress' grubby revolutionaries and their two Robespierres, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.
Nice scenario, but highly unlikely. Assuming that Powell wins, he does it as a self-declared Rockefeller Republican, the first Republican ever to so declare himself and win. A man so personally popular that he could sweep to the nomination of a party ideologically unconducive to him - or win as the first successful third-party candidate in history - would be a president with great power. Any such president, and certainly an ex-general, would hardly be content to do ribbon-cutting while Congress ran the show.
No, on this score, the liberals who are panting for Powell have it right. Their enthusiasm for Powell, a man who is by no means one of theirs, should give conservatives pause. Their enthusiasm is not without logic.
Liberals are facing the very real prospect that an ideologically coherent and highly disciplined Republican Congress is about to overthrow their good works of 60 years. The past few weeks have only quickened their anxiety, from the de-entitlement of welfare and Medicaid to the first serious reining in of Medicare. And they know that in a country that is through with liberalism they are powerless to stop the juggernaut.
Who then? Clinton has proved weak and untrustworthy. Worse, he is so politically wounded that he might hand over the presidency next year to a conservative Republican, in which case all is lost: With a conservative president and a conservative Congress, everything liberals have achieved since the New Deal is put at risk.
Enter the man to stop the conservative revolution, Colin Powell - as a Republican president. Because a Rockefeller president presiding over a Goldwater Congress means a revolution in trouble. First, it is headless. Moreover, not only does the revolution have no leader in the White House, it has a brake. And a brake with far more moral authority than the feckless and compassless Clinton.
Clinton is so malleable on every issue, who can take him seriously, particularly on questions of principle? A President Powell would be taken seriously. Standing in the way of, say, yet more drastic welfare reform or a tax cut, he would have far more moral authority and political power than Clinton.
Moreover, Powell would have a deeply damaging structural impact on Republicanism. The nomination of a Rockefeller Republican, galvanizing the now disorganized and leaderless moderate wing of the party, would deflect its relentless conservative course. Indeed, it could very well split the party as it has not been split since 1964.
For liberals, Powell is the best way, perhaps the only way, to keep the barbarians at the gate. And Powell's own pronouncements on the Gingrichian agenda - "a little too hard, a little too harsh, a little too unkind" - show a not dissimilar attitude toward Congress' Republican radicals.
Politically, Powell is a New Democrat - what Clinton promised to be in 1992 - but with backbone and conviction. In fact, it would make far more ideological sense for Powell to pursue the Democratic than the Republican nomination. His professed reason for not being a Democrat - that the party has lost its moorings - rings hollow and self-serving. Leaders restore moorings. That's their job. And Powell, a man deeply moored, is precisely the man to revitalize a confused and enervated Democratic Party.
The reasons Powell will not run as a Democrat are decidedly less elevated. They are partly personal - his promotion by and association with Republican presidents - but mostly practical and calculating: The Democratic nomination this time around is sewn up. If the presidency were an open seat in '96, it would make far more sense - it might even have been likely - that Powell run as a Democrat. But circumstances are otherwise.
Powell is nothing if not a master of circumstance. He is also the single greatest danger to the Republican revolution in the country today.