Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why isn't Colin Powell a Democrat?

By Reihan Salam, CNN Contributor
October 26, 2012 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Colin Powell, a Republican, endorsed Barack Obama for re-election
  • Reihan Salam: Some mourn loss of moderate Republicans but sharper partisan lines are good
  • He says a liberal party and a conservative party enable voters to express preferences
  • Salam: To avoid gridlock, parties should be given more power over members of Congress

Editor's note: Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

(CNN) -- This week, Colin Powell, a retired four-star U.S. Army general perhaps best known for having served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, endorsed Barack Obama's bid for re-election during an interview with "CBS This Morning."

Given that Powell had enthusiastically endorsed Obama in 2008, his decision to back him yet again shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Yet Powell's endorsement of a Democratic candidate is seen as significant because he describes himself as "a Republican of a more moderate mold," who laments that GOP moderates are "something of a dying breed."

Powell expressed discontent with the Republican stance on climate change, immigration and education, and he seemed more comfortable with Obama's approach to achieving fiscal balance than Mitt Romney's. Powell is also, among other things, a defender of racial preferences in college admissions and abortion rights.

Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

While it is certainly true that Powell's views were not uncommon among moderate and liberal Republicans of an earlier era, it is not entirely clear why he chooses not to identify as a Democrat or as a liberal-leaning independent. One assumes that Powell has some residual loyalty to the party of Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford, which is, of course, fair enough.

But would American democracy be better and healthier if we had more Republicans such as Powell and more Democrats such as, say, former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who famously endorsed President George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention?

LZ Granderson: Both parties have a race problem

Some believe that blurring the boundaries of the two major political parties would be a very good thing as it would make legislative compromise more likely. Historically, it is certainly true that avowedly centrist legislators, such as the Southern congressional Democrats who worked closely with Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, have played an important role in shaping policy.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



There is, however, a significant downside to this blurring of boundaries.

Political scientists Richard Lau, David Anderson and David Redlawsk have argued that while we tend to focus on voter turnout as an important aspect of democratic citizenship, we should also pay attention to whether citizens are voting correctly.

To vote correctly, in the view of Lau and company, is to vote in accordance with your fully informed preferences. And one of the surest ways to increase correct voting is to give voters races in which candidates are reasonably ideologically distinct.

Sununu: Why Powell picked Obama
Booker: Sununu remark 'unfortunate'
Is Ohio must-win for Romney?
Powell: The art of being a good leader

If, like Colin Powell, you strongly believe that we need more regulation of carbon emissions, an approach to deficit reduction that involves substantial increases in federal taxes as well as spending cuts, an immigration policy that gives unauthorized immigrants the opportunity to become lawful permanent residents without first requiring that they return to their country of origin, and an education policy that emphasizes higher levels of public spending over competition among educational providers, it wouldn't just be unusual to back Mitt Romney over Barack Obama -- it would actually be, in the sense articulated by Lau and his co-authors, incorrect.

In light of the first-past-the-post nature of our electoral system, and the dominance of the two major political parties, candidates do tend to try to blur distinctions as general elections approach, thus raising the risk of incorrect voting. But as Democrats and Republicans have grown more ideologically coherent, as liberals have joined the Democrats and as conservatives have joined the Republicans, this risk has decreased considerably.

One might still object to partisan polarization on the grounds that it makes compromise extremely difficult. Oddly enough, the best solution to this problem might not be weaker political parties, in which individual officeholders are less likely to toe the party line and more likely to cross the aisle, but rather stronger political parties.

In "Better Parties, Better Government," Joel Gora and Peter Wallison argue that successive legislative efforts to reform campaign finance have left the United States with a candidate-centered rather than a party-centered political system.

Specifically, restrictions on the extent to which candidates can coordinate fundraising and campaigning efforts with party organizations have essentially left candidates to fend for themselves. While this might sound more attractive than a system with powerful party bosses, a candidate-centered system leads to a situation in which candidates have to spend enormous amounts of time and effort raising money, particularly if they are challenging incumbents.

This in turn makes candidates dependent on donors, whether they are wealthy individuals or special interest groups. One result of a candidate-centered system is that many people who would make excellent public servants are effectively shut out of the political process.

In a party-centered system, in contrast, candidates rely on the party for financial and organizational support. This gives the central party organization considerable leverage over candidates, which they can use to enforce some measure of party discipline.

Parties would also be more resistant to capture by special interests than individual legislators, as they would be in a position to balance the needs of a much broader array of interests.

So how would stronger parties improve the quality of governance?

Whereas individual candidates are primarily interested in their own short-term survival, party organizations have a longer-term perspective.

Stronger party organizations would, for example, have a strong incentive to develop a coherent legislative program, as doing so would help build the party brand. If the White House and Congress were controlled by the same party, this coherent legislative program could be implemented more easily under a party-centered system, in which legislators know what they've been put into office to accomplish, than under a candidate-centered system, in which its every legislator for herself or himself.

Consider Obama's first two years, in which large numbers of congressional Democrats from marginal seats kept frustrating the party's agenda.

These rebellious Democrats feared that sticking with the White House would cause them to lose their seats, but their efforts made Obama look weak, which in turn contributed to the GOP takeover of the House. Had these congressional Democrats been subject to stronger party discipline, the party as a whole might have been much better off.

A party-centered system also works better in a divided government, as opposition parties wouldn't be solely dedicated to frustrating the president's agenda. Rather, they'd dedicate themselves to achieving their longer-term legislative objectives, which would often entail working with the other side.

A stronger Republican party organization might have exerted more pressure on newly elected congressional Republicans to compromise on the debt limit, as the perception of GOP extremism may have damaged the party's brand in potentially winnable suburban districts outside of the South.

Rather than blur partisan boundaries, what American democracy needs is a healthy dose of responsible partisanship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely thoe of Reihan Salam.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT