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Powell tells GOP: ‘Reach out’ or wither

Colin Powell appears on the CBS talk show
Colin Powell appears on the CBS talk show "Face the Nation." (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Karen Deyoung Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday reaffirmed his allegiance to the Republican Party and called for a “no-holds-barred, candid” debate about the party’s future.

“If we don’t reach out more, the party is going to be sitting on a very, very narrow base,” Powell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “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.”

He used the appearance to strike back at critics who had attacked him recently as a Democrat in GOP clothing. Former Vice President Dick Cheney – who caustically said two weeks ago he thought Powell had given up his membership in the party when he endorsed Barack Obama for president last year – was “misinformed,” Powell said, adding, “I am still a Republican.”

Democrats won the presidency and control of both chambers of Congress, he said, with a more inclusive approach that appealed even to many traditional Republican voting blocs. A retired four-star army general who also served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell called on Republicans to “define who we are, and not just listen to the diktats that have come down from the right wing of the party.”

In an interview after his television appearance, Powell said he has no desire to re-emerge as a “public political official,” but will continue to speak out about the GOP’s future. He said he has spoken “occasionally” to President Obama, “and I’ve seen him recently,” and said he has had long-standing relationships with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, he said, he does not expect to play any larger role in the administration.

Powell’s estrangement from Cheney and others in the Bush White House led to his not being invited to serve a second term as secretary of state. Conservatives including popular radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh have led a sustained assault against him in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, Cheney said he would choose Limbaugh over Powell as a party exemplar and suggested that Powell is no longer a Republican. Limbaugh, for his part, said Powell was for “more spending … higher taxes … affirmative action … amnesty for illegals,” and fought the party on social issues. He called on Powell to leave the GOP.

“Rush will not get his wish,” Powell responded, “and Mr. Cheney was misinformed. … In the course of my 50 years of voting for president, I have voted for the person I thought was best qualified to lead the nation.” A registered independent for most of his life, he joined the Republican Party in 1995.

His model Republican, Powell said, was the late Jack Kemp, a congressman from New York who served in President George H.W. Bush’s Cabinet as Housing and Urban Development secretary and ran for vice president on the losing ticket led by Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., in 1996.

Kemp, Powell said, was “as conservative as anybody,” but also believed in “reaching out … sharing the wealth of the country not only with the rich, but with those who are least advantaged in our society.

“It’s that kind of Jack Kemp Republicanism that I like,” Powell continued, “and I would like to see the party move more in that kind of a direction.”

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