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Friday, Oct. 24, 2008

A Republican general's warning to America

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It was a revealing moment in American politics. In endorsing Barack Obama for president of the United States over fellow Republican John McCain, Colin Powell was not simply giving his blessing to this candidate. That was the easy part.

The harder part was getting up the courage to say something profoundly worrisome about America's Republican Party, with which the mild-spoken military hero has been identified for years. And what he said over the weekend was that today's Republican Party is no longer the useful, broad-gauged corrective to the Democratic Party that it once had been and still needs to be.

In a very large, multi-branched democracy such as the U.S., broad-based political parties that hold the other in check and compete vigorously for voter approval are essential for political stability. Extremist splinter parties accomplish little. The generally pathetic history of third parties in America is illustrative. So when one of the major parties begins to drift, however slowly, in the direction of an extremist splinter party, our democracy runs the danger of developing structural faults of debilitating character.

The Republican Party was once upon a time a thoroughly rational and patriotic party, in the sense of serving the polity as a counterpoint to the opposition. But you have to rewind back in history to realize this. After all, in the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican; in the 20th, you had Theodore Roosevelt.

America's centrist East Coast Republicans would include the brilliant Jacob Javits and the moderate Kenneth Keating, famed New York Republican senators of some decades ago. In the late 1960s, New York City sported Republican mayor and former congressman John Lindsay, who united that most diverse metropolis. (In the 1990s, Rudolph Giuliani, as a Republican mayor, was more divisive than unifying — until, of course, Sept. 11, 2001.)

Powell is not so much a political figure — he has never run for elective office. He has little taste for that kind of battle; neither does his wife Alma. Having served on the ground in the bloody and frustrating Vietnam War, and having helped organize and oversee the First Gulf War as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell has seen enough of real battle in his lifetime.

Powell would have probably made a great president of the U.S. (My own view is that the exceedingly sensible Republican George Bush Sr. deserved, on his merits, a second term.) There seems so few of those "Grand Old Party" types around these days. More and more the U.S. GOP is becoming like the cranky old lefty British Labour Party before the great wily transformer Tony Blair got his hands around its neck and shook some moderate sense into it.

One wishes Sen. John McCain had become America's Tony Blair, explaining to all his friends that extremism generally scares voters away (as GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater found out in 1964), diminishes the size of the base, and squanders its patriotic usefulness to our large democracy. Instead, it was the narrow-minded secretariat of his party that repainted this self-described maverick into a contemporary cookie-cutter Republican.

British political historians will note that in the decade of the '70s the British leftwing Labour Party drifted so far left that it became a national embarrassment. Emerging out of the fog of its militant cranky leftism was a new centrist political force: the Social Democratic Party. It lasted little more than half a dozen years during the '80s, but it put a forceful brake on Labour's slide into political oblivion.

Blair became Britain's prime minister in 1997 and, by lasting 10 years, became Labour's longest-running prime minister in its history.

In America, personality-king Ronald Reagan lasted two terms, but his worthy successor, George Bush Sr. had the unfortunate destiny of having to combat Bill Clinton for re-election. Clinton, in Blair-like fashion, recalibrated the Democratic Party as more centrist than leftist. Bush Sr. never had his deserved second term, though, alas, his less-wise son did, as we all know.

McCain has inherited both the Iraq war and a terrible economy — and the taint of Bush Jr.'s failed presidency. Worse yet, his campaign is run by True Believers — in effect the rightist militants of the GOP. Whatever Colin Powell truly thinks of the young Barack Obama, his disdain for the rightwing of his party could not be clearer.

It is this warning from the old soldier for which America and the world needs to be most grateful. And it should serve to inform the rest of the world that Powell — among many others — is unhappy and fearful about today's Republican Party. That's because he's a true patriot.

Veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate is a syndicated columnist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." © 2008 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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