Powell Stays Republican (And that is a good thing)
Posted on May 26, 2009
This originally appeared in The Politico
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell ended speculation regarding his political affiliation, which had been fueled in no small way by the comments of Rush Limbaugh and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Powell’s vote for and public support of the Democratic nominee and now president, Barack Obama, helped add to the confusion.
Powell told “Face the Nation” over the weekend, “Rush will not get his wish, and Mr. Cheney was misinformed. I am still a Republican.” That is a good thing.
Republicans — including very conservative Republicans like Indiana Rep. Mark Souder and especially those Republicans who are standing for reelection — want Powell to stay in the party.
Powell is no social conservative. He supports abortion rights, and he has voiced support for affirmative action. He recently said that most people want more government in their lives, a dubious statement in the eyes of the conservative movement.
But Powell serves a vital role as a proud member of the Republican Party. He serves as a counterweight to those who would take the party too far to the right, those who seek orthodoxy on a variety of social and fiscal issues and those who see only absolutes in a world of gray.
As someone who watched the Republican Party prosper in the 1990s, only to see it essentially collapse during the 2006 election, I believe balance is essential to the party’s rebirth. I watched from my perch as a leadership staffer as Tom DeLay and Chris Shays battled it out on issue after issue. DeLay sought to take the party to the right; Shays, to the left. DeLay used every tool to try to get moderates to toe the party line on issues such as taxes, abortion and spending, while Shays used the rules of the House to pound through things like campaign finance reform.
When DeLay and Shays could reach agreement, the party did well. When they couldn’t, the wheels came off the wagon and the party ended up in the ditch.
Powell is no lily-livered liberal. His military doctrine — the idea that when we go into battle, we should use only overwhelming force and that we should have an exit strategy before we go in — would have come in handy in Iraq. A decorated military hero, Powell also gives needed credibility to a GOP that is far too easily accused of being the chicken hawk party. Like Eisenhower, Powell can speak truth to power when it comes to the military-industrial complex and other issues related to national security. His voice (and that of others who agree with him, including Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush) should be respected and listened to.
Yes, Powell has a different perspective than social conservatives when it comes to certain issues. But those different perspectives reflect the views of a large number of independent and, quite often, affluent voters. It is far better to debate those issues and attempt to reach a consensus within the party than it is to leave those voters to the Democrats. When we lose the suburbs, we lose the country. Powell’s views reflect suburbia, and they should not be roundly condemned and then ignored by the GOP. These folks used to be our voters. For us to win there again, we have to listen to their views.
Limbaugh likes to say that Powell voted for Obama because they share the same race. So what if he did? There were a lot of Republicans who voted for Obama in the last election and then felt so good about their vote that they decided to leave the party entirely. Powell, at least, has expressed an interest in staying Republican. We shouldn’t use that one vote as a cudgel against him. We should instead find ways to make him a better Republican, one who feels compelled to not only vote for the next Republican nominee but also work for our candidates in the next congressional election.
For a good chunk of the 20th century, New Deal Democrats cobbled together a coalition of white Southerners, Northern liberals, Irish Catholics, African-Americans and a wide variety of other ethnic groups. They dominated Congress from 1934 until 1994, with only a few years’ interruption. They hashed out their many disagreements within the confines of their own caucus and only when they couldn’t reach agreement with themselves did they think to reach out to the Republicans.
I doubt that Republicans can ever have a coalition as diverse as the New Deal coalition. But demographics dictate that should the Republicans ever want to regain control, they must open their doors to a little bit of dissent.
Powell represents that little bit of dissent. His pedigree as a Republican is well-established, his talents are legion, his voice is respected. He says he is a Republican, and that is a good thing. We should take him at his word and then hear his views as we debate the future of the party.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.