SAN DIEGO - Many Republicans still worship Ronald Reagan, but some of them are having trouble adhering to the late president's 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."
These days, that admonition seems downright quaint. In fact, Republicans seem to be going after each other with more energy and enthusiasm than many of them show when they butt heads with Democrats.
Bill Bennett, one of the country's leading conservatives, joked recently that he is willing to mediate the dispute between Colin Powell and Rush Limbaugh because he likes them both. Their tiff started when Limbaugh said that Powell had endorsed Obama "purely and solely based on race." According to National Journal, Powell responded in a speech that "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."
Limbaugh returned fire on his show, saying "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."
If Bennett is serious, then he's in the right party. He also could turn his attention to the divide between Powell and former Vice President Dick Cheney. During a recent appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," when asked about the spat between Limbaugh and Powell, Cheney let loose with this barb: "My take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn't know he was still a Republican." Cheney said Powell's endorsement of Obama gave "some indication of his loyalty and his interest."
Or maybe Bennett could smooth things out between Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and potential 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. While serving as guest host of Bennett's radio show, Steele responded to a question by citing the former Massachusetts governor's penchant for flip-flops and saying that the GOP base rejected Romney in 2008 because it "had issues with Mormonism." A Romney spokesman charged that Steele misfired when trying to "shoot from the hip."
Bennett also could bring together Romney and Sarah Palin. Told that Palin had been chosen as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, Romney quipped: "Was that the issue on the most beautiful people or the most influential people?"
Or Bennett could try to play peacemaker between former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and a group of forward-looking GOP leaders whom Huckabee recently mocked for launching a "listening tour" to reach out to voters, the first stop of which didn't make it outside the Beltway.
There is nothing wrong with a robust debate about the future of the Republican Party. Nor is there anything wrong with GOP leaders poking at one another. As Rep. Mike Pence likes to say: "Rubbing is racing." But there is a difference between a healthy competition of ideas and personal attacks motivated by ego, envy and an eagerness to get to the front of the line.
The Republican Party never has excelled at diversity, but what it needs now is a tolerance for diversity of opinion. Limbaugh should be free to criticize Powell and express his view about what sparked the general's endorsement of Obama. But at the same time, Powell should be able to endorse a Democrat for president when inspired to do so and still be considered a Republican, just as - on the other side of the fence - so-called Reagan Democrats crossed party lines in 1984 and yet managed to find their way home in subsequent elections to vote for Bill Clinton and, later, for Obama.
Instead of engaging in childish infighting, this is the time for Republicans to settle on their values, hone their message, and choose their leaders. The GOP needs to rebrand and market itself to the country. It needs to explain to voters - especially the immigrants and young people who represent the future - why concepts such as personal responsibility, limited government, respect for the individual and local control are still worth championing. Most of all, some of its leaders need to realize that winning elections is about lifting new people into the boat, not tossing the crew overboard.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2009 The San Diego Union Tribune