Powell, Answering Critics, Urges GOP to 'Reach Out'

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell yesterday 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 Richard B. Cheney -- who caustically said two weeks ago that 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 reemerge 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 a larger role in the administration.

On CBS, Powell repeated his support for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an issue that has illustrated a deep divide at the top ranks of party politics. Cheney has accused Obama of endangering national security by demanding both the shuttering of the facility and the release or federal trial of most of the 240 detainees who remain there.

"I've felt Guantanamo should be closed for the past six years," Powell told host Bob Schieffer. "I lobbied and presented reasons to President Bush. Mr. Cheney is not only disagreeing with President's Obama's policy, but also with" the administration in which he served. Bush wanted to close the prison, Powell said, but "couldn't get all the pieces together" and ran into many of the same problems Obama is now encountering.

But Powell faulted Obama for seeking to close Guantanamo without a detailed plan on what he would do with the detainees. The House and Senate last week refused to give the administration the funding it sought to shut down the prison, and many lawmakers said their states would not permit alleged terrorists to be transferred to domestic prisons.

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 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 George H.W. Bush's Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and ran for vice president on Robert J. Dole's losing ticket in 1996.

Kemp, Powell said, was "as conservative as anybody," but also believed in "reaching out" and "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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