WASHINGTON — The conservative vs. moderate split threatening to rupture the Republican Party played out across the airwaves Sunday, with Colin Powell and Tom Ridge denouncing shrill and judgmental voices they say are steering the GOP too far right. Karl Rove challenged Powell to lay out his vision and "back it up" by helping elect Republicans.
At stake is the GOP's status as a major party, Powell and Ridge suggested.
"I believe we should build on the base because the nation needs two parties, two parties debating each other. But what we have to do is debate and define who we are and what we are and not just listen to dictates that come down from the right wing of the party," said Powell, the nation's top military officer under President George H.W. Bush and later secretary of state for President George W. Bush.
Powell openly mocked by some
Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh have openly mocked Powell as a Republican in name only, citing his endorsement of Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in last year's presidential race.
Powell reaffirmed that he is a solid Republican and said the GOP must be more inclusive or risk giving Democrats and independents the chance to scoop up disaffected moderate Republicans. He detailed his presidential voting history — yes to GOP nominees Ronald Reagan through the younger Bush, but yes also to Democrats John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
"If we don't reach out more, the party is going to be sitting on a very, very narrow base. You can only do two things with a base. You can sit on it and watch the world go by, or you can build on the base," Powell said.
Fellow GOP moderate Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and homeland security secretary under George W. Bush, said if the GOP wants "to restore itself, not as a regional party, but as a national party, we have to be far less judgmental about disagreements within the party and far more judgmental about our disagreement with our friends on the other side of the aisle."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, insisted he didn't want to pick a fight with Cheney. But Gingrich offered this advice: "I think Republicans are going to be very foolish if they run around deciding they're going to see how much they can purge us down to the smallest possible base."
'Just another liberal'
Cheney, defense secretary when Army Gen. Powell was Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman during the Gulf War in 1991, has made clear that he would rather follow broadcaster Limbaugh than Powell into political battle over the GOP's future. "I didn't know he was still a Republican," Cheney said in a television interview two weeks ago.
Limbaugh has called Powell "just another liberal," said he should become a Democrat and charged that Powell endorsed Obama based on race. Both Powell and Obama are black.
In remarks to business leaders in Boston this past week, Powell took on such high-profile criticism, saying, "I may be out of their version of the Republican Party, but there's another version of the Republican Party waiting to emerge once again."
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Rove, chief political strategist for the younger Bush, took the position that "if you say you're Republican, you're Republican." But he wanted more than words from Powell.
"I don't like this thing where people — and Powell is one them — who said, `Rush Limbaugh, shut up.' We believe, as Republicans in the marketplace of ideas. Let that marketplace decide," Rove said.
"I want Colin Powell to go out there and lay out his vision, and then I want him to back it up by finding people who share it and working like heck to get them — and that's how you win the party."
'False debate that Washington loves'
Like Cheney, Rove said he would pick Limbaugh over Powell, but said it's moot. "Neither one of those are going to be people who are offering themselves for office. ... This is a false debate that Washington loves."
Intraparty squabbles would appear to be natural given the low standing of the Republican Party and the administration of George W. Bush in opinion polls. But Republicans who have suggested that the party moderate its views and even support some of Obama's initiatives have been quickly targeted for criticism.
Ridge, a supporter abortion rights who was on McCain's short list of vice presidential picks but deemed too moderate by more conservative elements of the GOP, said he thinks "a lot of our commentators are being shrill."
"Rush Limbaugh has an audience of 20 million people. A lot of people listen daily to him and live by every word. But words mean things and how you use words is very important," Ridge said. "It does get the base all fired up and he's got a strong following. But personally, if he would listen to me, and I doubt if he would, the notion is express yourselves but let's respect others' opinions and let's not be divisive."
Powell appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" while Ridge's taped interview was aired on CNN's "State of the Union." Gingrich spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Rove on "Fox News Sunday."
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