Political Hay

Colin Powell and the Failure of Moderate Republicanism

How can Colin Powell say he supports Kemp conservatism when he doesn't know the first thing about Kemp's ideas?

By 5.26.09

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Colin Powell doesn't get it.

Neither do moderate Republicans, which is why there are an increasingly fewer number of them left.

Let's start with Powell's recent statement on Face the Nation that his late friend Jack Kemp "was as conservative as anybody" and believed in "reaching out." So far, so good. Correct on both counts. Kemp was a proud conservative and did indeed believe in reaching out. He not only believed these things, he lived them. A generation of passionately inspired conservatives are part of the Kemp -- and Ronald Reagan -- legacy.

Then Powell added this: Jack Kemp believed in "sharing the wealth of the country not only with the rich, but with those who are least advantaged in our society."

Stop right there, General. Respectfully, this is as false as it can be. It's like describing the 90 degree heat on the Fourth of July as a February blizzard with temperatures of 50 below freezing. Jack Kemp believed no such thing.

As anyone who worked for Kemp can tell you (and I, along with many others, had the chance), Jack Kemp was a tireless proponent of what he loved to call economic opportunity. Never, in any way, shape or form did he ever espouse the idea that "sharing the wealth" was anything but harmful -- to the country, to society and, most particularly to the least advantaged among us. He disdained the approach Powell seems to be repeatedly advocating these days as "bread slicing" versus "bread baking" economics.

Kemp was a "bread baker." Powell the Obama-supporter has put himself on the side of the "bread slicers."

Specifically, Kemp said things like this:

• "Opportunity, the chance to make it and to improve your life, that's what the American Dream is all about. What poisons the dream is when government stands in the way, throwing up more roadblocks that are really unnecessary. More and more people sense along the way that they're not going to fulfill their potential not because of a deficiency in their ambition or ability, but because of a deficiency in the political structure. Their honest ambitions are frustrated. They believe, often rightly, that somehow the flaws of government have held them back or cut them down. What really gripes is that we also know it is not a case of an individual sacrifice for the good of all….Our government is the other team -- and it's winning!"

• "The sad truth is that for too long Republicans beat a mental retreat from leadership….After Barry Goldwater went down to defeat as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, the 'moderates' and 'progressives' in the party stepped forward with a host of ideas on how to rebuild the party.…it seemed to me that the Republicans were giving in to the idea that what the voters wanted from the Republicans was not more competition but less…Republicans would try to be more like Democrats, which meant more spending, more taxes, more government standing between the individual and the American Dream. …"

• "If one political party concentrates on increasing public spending (Democrats) and the other party concentrates on decreasing public spending (Republican moderates) who is left to concentrate on economic growth, on the expansion of opportunities that can only come from such growth? Who is left to prevent the American Dream from becoming a distant memory in an increasingly segmented, selfish, Europeanized politics -- the kind of which Jefferson was so fearful? This is why a Republican revolution is so important, and why it can only come as the GOP increasingly focuses its intellectual resources and political skills on generating a climate for economic growth. Republicans must commit themselves boldly and relentlessly to real economic expansion, to the growth of opportunity, and with that a return of hope."

And what is Colin Powell's response?

"Americans do want to pay taxes for services….Americans are looking for more government in their lives, not less."

In short, this is the same -- the very same -- quintessential response that Republican moderates have been urging as the path to victory every single time they wound up losing the latest election, a period that begins with Dewey and hopefully ended with McCain. They believe being "inclusive" means copying Democrats with policies of more taxes and higher spending -- just a bit less than the other guys. As Kemp never tired of pointing out, moderates were forever "cloaking Democratic ideas in elephant suits."

Something should be said here about Powell. Was he a good general? Yes indeed. His leadership in the Gulf War was superb. Is he an American patriot? Dumb question. He is one of the finest. Has he served his country well for his military career? Yes, but of course. Did he deliberately lie to the United Nations about the presence of weapons of mass destruction while Secretary of State? No again. He -- like nearly everyone else of any consequence -- believed they were there and that Saddam Hussein was a serious threat to the U.S. and world peace.

But because Powell is all of the above, this does not make him either a good politician or one who understands the importance of principle in politics. There is nothing either wrong or offensive in saying so. In this sense Powell reminds of another American military hero and his attempts to shape Republican Party policy: Douglas MacArthur.

"They're afraid of me," MacArthur once remarked to an aide of Republican leaders of the day as the 1944 election season approached. Why? "Because they know I will fight them in the newspapers."  And, very much like Powell today, MacArthur did just that. But there was a problem. When push came to shove and MacArthur's name was actually on a real ballot -- the Wisconsin Republican primary ballot of 1944 -- the great hero came in not first but a humiliating third. In short order some of his private correspondence with a congressional supporter was released to the press, showing the general's political insights to be, in the words of a prominent GOP Senator, "a boner" and "untenable." In short order, the great MacArthur's political standing was so bad with the voting public he quickly withdrew. Still, his name was put forward at the 1944 GOP convention, where he lost 1,056 (for Thomas E. Dewey) to 1.

In 1952, his status as the general fired by the deeply unpopular President Harry Truman (he with worse ratings than George W. Bush) elevating him to almost mythical proportions, MacArthur failed even more dismally. This time he was fierce in his belief the GOP should resoundingly repudiate his own former staff aide, General Dwight Eisenhower. His friends arranged for him to give the keynote address to the Republican Convention -- and the results were described by one biographer, William Manchester, "as the worst speech of his career…banal…bungling…" Whatever influence MacArthur was thought to have had in American politics generally and the Republican Party specifically vanished for good.  

There is a lesson here. Colin Powell, like MacArthur, is unquestionably seen by the American public as a military hero. The other day Powell was here in the area to give the commencement address at my own alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On the way, he stopped at an area Waffle House -- alone -- and sauntered in for breakfast. He was instantly mobbed. Without question, the American people hold him in high regard.

Yet as with Douglas MacArthur, it is highly questionable that Powell's status as military hero is any indication whatsoever that he has any serious understanding of Republican principles and, most importantly, why they are principles. Even MacArthur understood that the fact that he was a Republican meant voting for FDR in 1944 or Truman in 1948 or Stevenson in 1952 meant an endorsement of principles that were a political 180 degrees from what he kept insisting his Republican principles to be. Powell's endorsement of Obama showed not even that most basic of understandings.

Neither Powell nor his fellow moderates seem to understand that moderate Republicanism has had its day, its me-too principles tried and found wanting not simply as a matter of electoral politics but public policy as well. Perhaps the poster child for the consequences of Republican moderation is best symbolized by the late John Lindsay, the glamorous Republican Congressman from New York who became Mayor in 1965. Lindsay was the very epitome of GOP moderation. He disdained party conservatives, and followed every moderate prescription in the GOP moderates playbook.

In search of "inclusiveness" he allied himself with New York City's public sector unions, increased welfare payments, took a sympathetic view of the alleged "root causes" of crime and insisted that calls for basic "law and order" were "dangerous" if not simplistic. So too did Lindsay do precisely what moderate Republicans like Powell always advocate: he reached out to those who disagreed with GOP principles. By Lindsay's own account, he chose "Democrats, Liberals, and Independents" to staff his administration -- and thus showcased GOP moderation, tolerance, and inclusion at work. By the end of his first term, Lindsay had so alienated conservatives he was denied renomination by New York City Republicans. Tellingly, he won the Liberal Party nomination, and in a three-way race barely survived. Shortly thereafter he switched parties entirely, becoming a Democrat. He ran for president -- and got clobbered. Later, he ran for the U.S. Senate -- and got clobbered. The results of his policies in New York were viewed across the political board as a disaster. The city was headed for bankruptcy, swamped in crime, welfare recipients, and out-of-control public sector unions. The New York Times -- not surprisingly one of his biggest champions -- wound up calling Lindsay "an exile in his own city."

Perhaps most tellingly, the South Bronx, home of one Colin Powell, was famously left a disaster by these policies promoted by the leading GOP moderate of the day. And now? After the kind of conservative policies instituted by Jack Kemp and his friend Ronald Reagan, policies pushed by Lindsay's eventual successor as a GOP Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani? Here's one typical comment found in a 2005 issue of the Real Deal, a New York real estate publication. The speaker is Barry Kostrinsky, described as "a cofounder of the Haven, an art space on 141st Street in Mott Haven." "So, the South Bronx," Kostrinsky said, "it was terrible, right? That's what people said. But it started to clean up 20 years ago."

Twenty years ago from 2005. Which means Mr. Kostrinsky was speaking of 1985, just when the Reagan-Kemp policies were beginning to take hold, policies that Colin Powell now says he opposes because, Lindsay-style, he is certain Americans want more taxes and government services. 

Colin Powell, bluntly put, is not a political thinker. Listen to Powell in his own words from his memoirs, My American Journey:

We were introduced to the great military thinkers and their ideas -- Mahan on sea power, Douhet on airpower, and Clausewitz on war in general…..That wise Prussian Karl von Clausewitz was an awakening for me. His On War, written 106 years before I was born, was like a beam of light from the past….

Unsurprisingly the man who has been a successful general knows his military history and strategy. He devotes plenty of space to Clausewitz and other military strategists.

But to borrow from Sherlock Holmes, the dog that didn't bark with Colin Powell is that those very same memoirs have not a single listing for two men Jack Kemp studied meticulously, two men Ronald Reagan understood well: Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith. The economic equivalents of Clausewitz. Nor is there mention of any other serious proponent of the classical economics that, thanks to the thinking of his old friend Jack Kemp and his old boss Ronald Reagan, "started to clean up [the South Bronx] 20 years ago."

In other words, when it comes to serious, much proven conservative policy and translating that policy into Republican politics -- like John Lindsay and other GOP moderates, for Colin Powell there is no "there" there. As someone in the Reagan White House at the same time as Powell I can say with certainty there was no one in the political strategy section of Reagan's operation who, discussing a difficult political problem or issue of the day, ever said, "What does Colin Powell think?"

Well regarded? Yes. A voice on national security issues? Absolutely. The man to hash over Reaganomics? To understand the politics of Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Montana or Florida? To get a shrewd look at expanding the base of the GOP -- something Reagan had already done with stunning success over the opposition of GOP moderates -- by inviting in Christian conservatives scooped up by Jimmy Carter in 1976? No.

Neither then nor, it seems, now did Colin Powell ever spend any serious time trying to understand what Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan were saying, much less how what they were saying and doing could help both the country and make the Republican Party competitive. Had there been it would be impossible to so strikingly misdescribe Kemp's conservative economics. Amusingly, there's no reference to Kemp in Powell's book either, much less any of the ideas that Kemp advocated with such passion -- and success. Would that Kemp, not Lindsay, been Mayor of New York. A lot of damage would have been averted.

Is General Colin Powell a good general? You bet. So was Douglas MacArthur. A good guy, a compassionate man, a man of serious purpose in the world of things relating to national security? He is all of those.

But when it comes to serious, knowledgeable conversation from Powell about how to expand the base of the Republican Party, about the serious failure of moderate GOP politics and policy, there is not from him or for his listeners the "beam of light from the past" that Clausewitz provided Powell himself on things military. Powell's audience -- and those who follow Republican moderates -- are being invited into the most charming of Potemkin Villages. Inside of that village, to borrow from another tale, is the discovery of a startling fact:

The Emperor Has No Clothes.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.