What if Colin Powell had become president?
If Colin Powell had followed George H.W. Bush into the Oval Office, the Republican Party — and the world — would be very different today
The funeral of former President George H.W. Bush returned to the spotlight many who served in his administration. Some, like former Vice President Dan Quayle, are very much artifacts of that time. Others, such as his defense secretary Dick Cheney, later the 46th vice president, have since grown in importance.
Colin Powell is in a middle category. He ascended from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the elder Bush's administration to secretary of state under his son. Yet he clearly had a less of a policy impact than Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or other H.W. alumni like Condoleezza Rice or even Paul Wolfowitz.
What if it had been different? For a time, that looked quite possible. Through much of 1995, there was widespread hope that Powell would run for president. He competed, even led, in some polls of Republican primary voters. The same surveys suggested he was capable of beating President Bill Clinton, whose recovery from the 1994 "Republican Revolution" was already underway.
Many, though by no means all, conservatives were opposed to this idea (including a youthful version of this writer) because Powell was a pro-choice supporter of affirmative action who had occasionally voted for Democratic presidential candidates (though not the ones who ran against Ronald Reagan or Bush 41).
In retrospect, this seems like a mistake. Powell could have been elected in 1996, in contrast with the sad farewell tour masquerading as a presidential campaign embarked upon by the otherwise heroic Bob Dole. The first black president of the United States being a Republican would have been a significant development, one that might have mitigated, if not averted, the ugly racialization of our politics.
Powell would have been a moderate not too strongly associated with the left or the right, likely allowing him to assemble an electoral coalition unlike anything we can imagine today. But as a Republican, he might have kept the Newt Gingrich Congress from going off the rails. The internet boom would have happened anyway; perhaps Powell's policies would have been even more pro-growth than second-term Clinton's.
It could have been something closer to the era of good feelings people wrongly imagine the Bush 41 years to be (Poppy Bush's media coverage was only favorable compared to President Trump's). A booming economy, a popular president backed by independents, no Whitewater investigations, no Monica Lewinsky, no impeachment. And maybe only one President Bush?
If the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred under Powell's watch, the United States would have been less likely to respond by waging a second war in Iraq. Powell had been a voice for restraint in both Bush administrations each time such a military intervention was contemplated. He was overridden. Worse, his presentation in front of the United Nations helped sell faulty intelligence about the weapons of mass destruction and thus the invasion.
But that was Powell the soldier and dutiful Cabinet member. 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. Realists would have been a bigger part of his White House, which would qualify them for more senior positions under future Republican presidents. And our response to 9/11 may well have been limited to hitting Afghanistan, keeping the international coalition against terrorism intact under a president who had been part of winning a war.
Historical counterfactuals are always tricky. Powell might have aligned with congressional Democrats to do something conservatives would have disliked, such as raising taxes. His abortion stance alone could have drawn a credible conservative third-party candidate if nominated, as well as a primary challenger if he sought a second term. Either could have crippled a bid for the White House.
Still, if you look at the past 20-plus years of American politics — the Clinton saga, the Bush-Cheney wars, Barack Obama giving way to Donald Trump — wouldn't you have wanted to avoid a lot of it? Hindsight is 20-20, but Powell looks like he might have been our best bet for doing so.
As it turned out, Bush Republicanism might not have been best preserved by another Bush.