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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Colin Powell: Suppose He had Run in 1996….: Yes It Needs to Be Asked

[Written prior to seeing the similar op-eds in The New York Times and the Washington Post but posted afterwards]

Colin Powell’s death has been an occasion to recall his character as an individual human being and for his place in American history. He also is important for what he did not do – he did not run for President in 1996. In the lead up to the election, he was widely popular among Republicans, a far cry from the Trumpican Party today. Imagine if he had chosen to run, won the nomination, and then won the election. What follows is speculative but think of how different American and world history might have been.


The incumbent president would have become a one-term loser just as the former President is a one-term loser. However, his response would have been very different. The odds are after his defeat he would have withdrawn from national politics and returned home to Arkansas. There would have been no “Stop the Steal” and alternate capital with the loser planning his return to the White House in the next election. Nor would the national Democrats have been subservient to his every whim. Instead it would have been “one and done” to borrow a phrase from college basketball. The comparatively young ex-president who had been focused like a laser on his political viability since he had been a teenager, now would have had to find a new path in life for the many decades to come.


Would their partnership for political power have survived the loss of power and end of a nearly 25-year arrangement? It’s hard to imagine her returning to Arkansas with him. It is one thing for a young graduate to accept an assignment in the boonies with the intention of moving up to corporate headquarters. It is quite another for that person to return there once you have been in power and now lost it.

Arkansas never was her home. Even while based there, she spent much time commuting to the nation’s capital where she advocated for women and children. If the two had never married, it is easy to imagine her crafting a career, perhaps even a Cabinet Secretary position, reflective of those interests in a Gore presidency or of some other Democrat.

After the failure of her health care plan and the loss in the 1996 election, it is hard to imagine that people would be clamoring for her to run for elected office anywhere. Given her actual political skills and experience, she needed to be handed an election on a silver platter to win. That would have been even more true following the election loss.

She also would have had no reason to leave the city where she wanted to live for a state where she had never sought to live. Keep in mind, she did not go in to corporate law or finance. She had been an intern in Washington during Watergate. That is the city where she wanted to be.

As a result the political scene in the 21st century would have been very different.

No Senate. No Secretary of State. No presidential nomination. No “Lock her up!”


The information about the scandal of the former President still would have become public, but who would have cared save some night TV comics? There would have been no Starr investigation and no impeachment. Democrats would have felt no obligation to rally behind the disgraced loser President. All in all, the political climate would have been much calmer.

2000 Election

Presumably, Powell would have run for re-election. Depending on who is Vice President was there would be speculation about the 2004 candidate.

On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley and Al Gore still would have sought the nomination. Gore would not have the advantage of incumbency. The desire to start the new century and millennium with a clean slate probably would have worked against Gore. Either way, Powell would have been the favorite.

There would have been no Florida.

Again the political climate would have been much calmer.


9/11 still would have occurred but the response would have been different. Powell more likely would have implemented the Powell Doctrine rather than the “Evil Axis” one. The action in Afghanistan would have been focused on Osama bin-Laden and not on nation-building. The number of troops never would have reached the levels they did under Bush and his successors.

There would have been no invasion of Iraq.

The absence of an invasion of Iraq would have changed the dynamic for the Arab Spring. There is no way to know who would have been President then. But whoever that person was, that person would have had more options without the albatross of the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan poisoning the reputation of the United States. So while we cannot know what America would have done in response to the Arab Spring, our options would have been greater. We even might have been welcomed in some places.

Barack Obama would have lost his signature issue at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He still would have been an ambitious person who sought the presidency but his path to national standing would have taken a different road.


The further in the future one goes, the less sure the terrain. There are too many variables. Even if Powell had run and won in 1996, we would not know who is Vice President would have been. We would not know who the candidates would have been in 2004.

We can reasonably predict that the Republican Party would have remained sane and not degenerated into the Trumpican Party it is today. A two-term Powell Presidency would have helped normal people like John McCain, Mitt Romney, and both George and Jeb Bush. If a Democrat did win in 2004 then Obama’s opportunities would have been reduced. A Republican victory would have created an opening for him but as an outsider in 2008 and not as a competitor for an open seat. The Clintons would have been irrelevant.

In short, in 2008 there would have no opening for a con artist to exploit to become a national political figure. The longtime fake Democrat and Clinton supporter had no future as a Democrat. Without Obama and Clinton to insult, he would be muzzled. There would be little traction for Sarah Palin calling for taking back the country. So besides

  • No Lewinksy impeachment scandal
  • No Florida recount
  • No “Lock her up”
  • No or less vocal “foreign-born [like Powell’s parents] Moslem terrorist
  • No forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

there would have been no Donald Trump who would say:

Wonderful to see Colin Powell, who made big mistakes on Iraq and famously, so-called weapons of mass destruction, be treated in death so beautifully by the Fake News Media. Hope that happens to me someday. He was a classic RINO, if even that, always being the first to attack other Republicans. He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!”

Powell in 1996 could not have known what the future would bring. There was no Ghost of Christmas Future to guide him, no Angel Clarence to show George Bailey the way. He made his decision based on his needs and concerns in the present without knowing what the future would be if he had decided otherwise. I know that there are lessons to be learned from this but I am not exactly sure what.