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Powell 'Civility,' Please

THE republic still stands. But Colin Powell's departure from the race he dominated without entering is a source of regret to most Americans. And to us.

President Clinton, Majority Leader Dole, and Speaker Gingrich seem to be doing their best to make voters miss Mr. Powell and his talk of "civility" in government. Instead of calmly dealing with the inevitability of compromise on the most far-reaching budget package in decades, the three have engaged in petty brinkmanship.

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Each of them knows that on the big issues of budget-balancing, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare reform, we'll be living with some kind of compromise next year. Each knows that the Senate and House are on the brink of voting their compromise. Each knows that Mr. Clinton will veto that and next, playing from a weak hand, attempt to moderate the budget package a bit; then sign. (The president has long since announced he could live with the Senate versions of many of the major budget items.)

So, if this were a business conflict, the two sides would be off meeting quietly to hammer out a bargain that each could live with.

Instead the top leaders (two of them candidates, the third flirting once again) are trying to out-spin each other, with government shutdown, and then default chugging ahead.

A GOP-candidate Powell would have encountered many attempts to put mud on his face and clay on his feet. But it's hard to imagine him spurning a compromise meeting that is inevitable, as Mr. Clinton has.

The reasons so many citizens share a mixed feeling of loss and admiration after General Powell's soul-searching departure are important:

*A growing belief that the system is not producing the best candidates - that too many voters say they go to the polls to make a choice between wannabes they don't admire. Given the long history of reforming the electoral system to move away from smoke- and boss-filled rooms toward voter participation in candidate selection, this is disheartening. It also helps explain the persisting low voter turnout in national elections.

* A desire to heal the nation's persistent racial gulf. General Powell would have done much to further the ideal of a color-blind nation. His daily presence as a leader in multi-ethnic America would create a real life political Cosby show.

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*A hope that both political parties will reject extremism. Polls and abundant anecdotal evidence indicate that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with right- and left-wing zealots.

Mr. Powell can further serve his country if he fulfills his pledge to work for moderation within the GOP. If political history tells us anything, it is that moderation in one party tugs the other party toward the center also.

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