COLIN POWELL'S decision not to run for president in 1996 is likely a disappointment to a considerable portion of the electorate. This is understandable, given his obvious popularity during the promotional tour for his recently published autobiography. It is just this outpouring of public adoration, not to mention his respectable poll standings, that presents a clear indication that the general is going to bide his time.
If General Powell is ever to use his popularity, experience, and expertise to profoundly alter politics in this country, he will seek the White House in 2000, and do so as an independent. Here is the four-year timetable he will need to follow to win the White House:
1996-97. Join forces with the high-profile lawmakers who have decided not to run for reelection because of their frustration with the current political climate in Washington. These include former Sens. Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas of the Concord Coalition, Sens. John Danforth and Bill Bradley, and Georgia's Sen. Sam Nunn, who last month joined these ranks.
Powell could serve as the catalyst in bringing such people together to formulate a clear political philosophy, leading to the formation of a new political party.
1997-99. These next two years would be spent building a nationwide party infrastructure, state by state, precinct by precinct. And to finance the coming campaign, money would be raised in reform-minded ways (accepting no funds from political-action committees; limiting individual contributions).
2000. For the first time in history, a third party would field serious candidates in every state legislative district and statewide race, for the House of Representatives and open US Senate seats, and, of course, for the presidency.
What would such an effort accomplish? All too many state and congressional districts are dominated by one party. The injection of a true third party - beholden to no one but the people - has the potential of transforming many predictable contests into horse races.
Even if the Powell-led third party lost the presidential race, the probable election of 20 to 30 US representatives and three to six US senators could fundamentally alter business-as-usual in Washington. Any president, Speaker of the house, or majority or minority leader would have to be a coalition builder to govern at all, never mind effectively.
The key to success is the founding of a movement with a clearly articulated political philosophy and an alternative campaign-finance structure. If Colin Powell is committed to mounting a challenge to the two-party system, he must work to form an organization that will continue and grow once he is no longer around. The inspiration and support for such a party must begin at the grass roots. It cannot survive in the long haul as a top-down movement such as Ross Perot's Independence Party, which will fail to have any long-term fundamental impact on the system.
The ultimate loser will be the Republican Party, which received a less than ringing endorsement in Tuesday's elections. A Powell-led four-year effort to create a new party that is rooted in fiscal conservatism and has a social conscience would relegate Republicans to third-party status. As like-minded Americans join the growing ranks of Powell's movement, the GOP would become home to the religious right and various fringe elements.
A successful third party would also force Democrats to design a political philosophy delineating their programs to create a compassionate society. This could lead to a reasoned dialogue about how to accomplish common social and economic goals in the 21st century.
Better than a billionaire
President Powell could function as a national chief executive officer, leading a group of the very best men and women recruited from business, labor, education, and, yes, even government. He could play the pivotal role in an unprecedented restructuring of the legislative and executive branches, along with campaign-finance reforms that returned political power to the people.
Neither a Texas billionaire nor the Washington power structure can do this. But the self-described ''reluctant warrior'' of Gulf War renown has tremendous potential.