By Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Under intense fire from the right, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell is preparing to answer his Republican critics this weekend in a television appearance that is likely to add fuel to his long-standing feud with top conservatives in his party.
The appearance will come just days after Powell, one of the country's leading black political figures, told an audience in Boston that a new Republican Party is "waiting to emerge." Earlier this month, he said the party is in "deep trouble" because "Americans are looking for more government in their life, not less."
Powell's current battle with the right flank of the GOP is a continuation of a war that began in November 1995, when he announced that he would not be a candidate in the 1996 presidential race. With an apparent eye on 2000, he said he would change his lifelong political registration from independent to Republican and begin a quest to move the party toward what he considered its natural home in the center.
Conservatives denounced his 1996 GOP convention speech, in which he voiced his support for abortion rights and affirmative action. But he quickly dropped off the political radar and did not resurface until presidential candidate George W. Bush sought him out as a popular figure whose public following and foreign policy expertise would benefit the Republican ticket.
Powell served as Bush's secretary of state and avoided partisan political activities after leaving the White House at the end of Bush's first term. That changed late in the 2008 presidential campaign, when he endorsed Barack Obama.
Since the election, he has called for the GOP to target mainstream moderates and abandon "impractical" ideas. That message, delivered in fits and starts, has proved too much for some conservatives as the party struggles to find its voice following Obama's victory. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and former vice president Richard B. Cheney have attacked Powell in recent days as a traitor to his party.
"What Colin Powell needs to do is close the loop and become a Democrat, instead of claiming to be a Republican interested in reforming the Republican Party," Limbaugh told listeners. And Cheney dryly commented: "I didn't know he was still a Republican."
Powell's turn will come this weekend. He is scheduled to appear on CBS's "Face the Nation" tomorrow and has told associates that he plans to answer his critics. Whether he will make an announcement about his party affiliation is unclear.
At the White House, advisers say that the president and Powell have a good relationship and that Obama reached out to the former general during the campaign for advice and counsel on a variety of national security issues.
And on Capitol Hill, some Republican lawmakers -- fearful of driving away one of the country's most popular and charismatic figures -- say they are eager to keep Powell in their party despite the policy differences many have with him.
"We are not going to get to a majority if we weed out people who disagree," said Rep. Mark Souder (Ind.). "I'm very conservative, but we need people like him, even if we disagree on some issues."
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of the GOP leadership in the Senate, said Powell is "one of the greatest leaders of our generation, and he is at heart a Republican."
In post-election interviews, Powell has said he remains a Republican, despite his backing of Obama. He rejected public speculation that he would take a Cabinet post and has done little public work with the new administration, although he appeared at the signing ceremony for a national service bill last month.
"The Republican Party is in deep trouble," Powell told corporate security executives at a conference in Washington this month, according to the National Journal. The party should realize that the country has changed, he said, adding: "Americans do want to pay taxes for services. Americans are looking for more government in their life, not less."
He said of Limbaugh, "I think what Rush does as an entertainer diminishes the party and intrudes or inserts into our public life a kind of nastiness that we would be better to do without."
In April, he appeared on liberal host Rachel Maddow's TV show, telling her, "I am a Republican, yes," but saying the party should reduce its emphasis on cutting spending.
Powell's comments have come amid a wider discussion about the future of the GOP after a pair of disastrous elections for Republicans.
His remarks on domestic policy and politics have infuriated a group of GOP voices that includes former White House adviser Karl Rove and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) as well as Limbaugh and Cheney, who has quarreled with Powell since the two served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
Gingrich has sharply criticized Powell for urging the GOP to stop advocating tax cuts. "Colin Powell's wrong," he told Fox News. "The average American doesn't want to pay higher taxes, and at a time of a severe recession, raising taxes is very destructive of economic growth."