Powellmania

The general and his suitors

THINK OF COLIN Powell as the great pacifier. His style's the thing. The idea of Powell is the idea of order, deliberation, calm, sanity: attributes of considerable appeal to an electorate so far buffeted between the spiritless waffling of Clinton and Dole and the oily, palpably mean character of men like Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, and Pat Buchanan. He isn't weak, he isn't crazy; vote for Powell! It doesn't hurt matters--for now, anyway, while his candidacy is only an idea--that he's black. His ascendancy, as Alexander Cockburn notes, bears symbolic witness to a faith "that the system is fair and that his life contains a far greater truth about America than the fact that one out of every three young black men in this country is currently under some form of custodial supervision."

If he's a palliative to race anxiety on a broad scale, his appeal to old guard Republicans is much more concrete. As Fortune hinted some months ago, big business is scared of the Gingrich claque and the religious right. The capos of corporate America are liberal on cultural issues, at least to the extent of believing in abortion rights, secular education, and some level of opportunity for women. They have no stomach for gay-bashing or open race-baiting. Powell's much-reviled status as a Rockefeller Republican is all to the good in their book, which does not contain the Book of Revelations.

Beyond the cultural politics, the business element is likewise worried by Newt's addled futurism and loose-cannon economics. As Strib business columnist Mike Meyers reported last week, the Republican Congress is currently moving to strike all manner of securities regulations, to the substantial peril of investors large and small. David Ruder, a Reagan-era chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, caught the spirit of establishment anxiety when he complained, "The Republican Congress is dealing with the SEC as though it is the enemy, instead of the policeman on the beat." It's one thing to cut the net from beneath single moms or the elderly, quite another to do it to the stock market. High-tech entrepreneurs and shady brokers dreaming of the halcyon days of junk bonds may like the idea, but business at large does not.

In the pre-Powell days of the Fortune story, the favorite presidential pick of CEOs was former defense secretary Dick Cheney. Dole and Gramm clocked in at 17 percent each, and Newt--who even now skulks at the gate, threatening to run if Powell doesn't--was all but invisible with 3 percent. It's no accident that Cheney headed the list. A career in Pentagon circles is ample assurance that one knows the ways of government subsidies to industry and will keep the right palms greased. The same obviously applies to Powell. With the New Hampshire filing deadline fast approaching, they should have his answer in a couple of weeks. My hunch is that his distaste for fractiousness will keep him out; all the books he's hawked by staying mum up to now could finance a very comfortable retirement. And if he gets restless, there's always 2000.

WHILE POWELL DAWDLES, Congressional Republicans continue to do more for Bill Clinton's approval ratings than he has been able to do for himself. Since April Clinton has been on an uptick, from 43 percent to 45 in August to 47 in October. During the same span Gingrich has gone from 39 to 33, Dole from 55 to 46; according to the same New York Times poll, 61 percent of Americans think the Republican budget should be vetoed and 81 percent reject the notion that it would balance the budget by 2002 as promised. The public disapproves of the Medicare plan by a 2-1 margin and of the proposed tax cuts by 3-1. As well they should: Even in its less draconian Senate version, over half the benefits of the tax overhaul go to the wealthiest 13 percent of the populace; at the extremes it would result in a net tax increase of between 2 and 4 percent for those earning under $30,000, and a 3-percent cut for those making over $200,000.

A couple of weeks back it was disclosed that Clinton had suppressed a Health and Human Services report showing that the welfare plan he backed would throw another million children into poverty. It should have been a scandal, but the cheap effrontery of the Gingrich bunch helped push it off the page before anyone noticed. They are accomplishing a feat that seemed impossible six months ago; they are making Clinton seem electable after all.

COPIOUS TEARS FOLLOWED last week's announcement that the Winnipeg Jets would not be coming to town in view of state and local government's failure to pony up the $20 million ransom. Now we're in for the inevitable recriminations about Minnesota's lack of civic vision, which will surely result in our becoming another--what will it be this time? Detroit? Omaha? Poughkeepsie? Last year a conservative Illinois think tank called the Heartland Institute produced a study that suggested major league teams have nothing to do with making major league metro economies. Of the 32 cities studied, 30 showed no demonstrable correlation between the presence of professional sports franchises and per-capita income growth; in the remaining two, the impact was positive in one case (Indianapolis) and negative in the other (Baltimore). "It is very likely," concluded the authors, "that sports do not expand spending, but serve only to realign it by substituting for other forms of leisure spending. Far from generating new revenues... sports 'investments' appear to be an economically unsound use of a community's scarce financial resources."

 
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