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Colin Powell, Chuck Hagel and the Republican Party

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is pictured as former U.S. President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush unveil their official White House portraits. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

In an exchange with David Gregory on Meet the Press Sunday, Colin Powell gave a full-throated defense of Chuck Hagel’s qualifications to be secretary of defense, rebutting forcefully attacks on Hagel from fellow Republicans. That led Gregory to "challenge" Powell on whether he was still a Republican himself. The exchange is worth noting in its entirety.

GREGORY: To mix in foreign policy with some politics, I’m struck when you talk about Republicans as they. I know you insist despite voting for President Obama twice now that you’re still a Republican. But as-- as I go through your record on some social issues and even foreign policy issues, I challenge you a little bit to say on what basis are you still a Republican? Do you feel like this Republican Party has left you or have you left it? 

GEN. POWELL: I think the Republican Party right now is having an identity problem. And I’m still a Republican. I’m a Republican who grew up along with George Bush XLI. I grew up with Ronald Reagan, Cap Weinberger, Frank Carlucci, that Republican Party, the Republican Party of Dick Lugar and John Tower. But in recent years, there’s been a significant shift to the right and we have seen what that shift has produced, two losing presidential campaigns. I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed. The country is changing demographically. And if the Republican Party does not change along with that demographic, they’re going to be in trouble. And so, when we see that in one more generation, the minorities of America, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans will be the majority of the country, you can’t go around saying we don’t want to have a solid immigration policy. We’re going to dismiss the 47 percent. We are going to make it hard for these minorities to vote as they did in the last election. What did that produce? The court struck most of that down and most importantly, it caused people to turn out and stand in line because these Republicans were trying to keep us from voting. There’s also a dark-- a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the Party. What I do mean by that? I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities. How can I evidence that? When I see a former governor say that the president is shuckin’ and jivin’, that’s a racial era slave term. When I see another former governor after the president’s first debate where he didn’t do very well, says that the president was lazy. He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well, he said he was lazy. Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with it Birther, the whole Birther Movement. Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the Party? I think the Party has to take a look at itself. It has to take a look at its responsibilities for health care. It has to take a look at immigration. It has to take a look at those less fortunate than us. The Party has gathered unto itself a reputation that it is the party of the rich. It is the party of lower taxes. But there are a lot of people who are lower down the food chain, the economic chain, who are also paying lots of taxes relative to their income and they need help. We need more education work being done in this country. We need a solid immigration policy. We have to look at climate change. There are a lot of things that the American people are expecting and the Republican Party, as they get ready for the next election, really has to focus on some of these issues and not ignore them. Everybody wants to talk about who’s going to be the candidate. You better think first about what’s the party they’re actually going to represent. If it’s just going to represent the far right-wing of the political spectrum, I think the Party is in difficulty. I’m a moderate but I’m still a Republican, that’s how I was raised. And until I voted for Mister Obama twice, I had voted for seven straight Republican presidents. 

In the two days since the interview aired, much of the reaction has been anger and denunciation of Powell from precisely those in the party whom he was criticizing.  Let’s hope that initial counterattack will prod Powell’s fellow moderates to speak out as well. This experienced soldier knows that the important political battles in the U.S. are won in the center, not on the fringes. He wants to see his party move in that direction. All Americans should hope for the same for the sake of the country, which needs a healthy two-party system.  

  • Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution. Talbott, whose career spans journalism, government service, and academe, is an expert on U.S. foreign policy, with specialties on Europe, Russia, South Asia and nuclear arms control. As deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Talbott was deeply involved in both the conduct of U.S. policy abroad and the management of executive branch relations with Congress. Most recently, he is the author of the sixth Brookings Essay, Monnet's Brandy and Europe's Fate.

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