Ex-GOP Senator Decries Limbaugh as “Center of Gravity” of Republican Party

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Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, has weighed in on his party’s Rush wars.

Rush Limbaugh is “the center of gravity” of the Republican Party, and “we need a new center of gravity,” Hagel told me on Tuesday night.

That evening, Hagel was taping an interview with Rachel Maddow for her MSNBC show. Now cochairman of the Commission on United States Policy Toward Russia, he discussed Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s announcement that Russia would begin a “large-scale rearming” and the news that Russia might be putting long-range bombers in Cuba and Venezuela. On the segment, Hagel, who was a foreign policy leader in the Senate, talked about his recent trip to Moscow and called for moving the US-Russia relationship back to a “smart” track. He also criticized former Vice President Dick Cheney for claiming that the Obama administration has placed the nation in danger and noted that Cheney was partly responsible for the “mess” the Bush administration left behind.

On the show, Hagel took a shot at new Republican Party chairman Michael Steele. Asked about Steele’s threat to support primary challengers against Republican Senators Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe, who each defied GOP leaders and voted for Obama’s stimulus package, Hagel called it “a very foolish, foolish move,” commenting, “there’s no room for that kind of silliness.” He added, “People expect serious people to deal with serious issues and to govern seriously. And when you don’t do that, you become irrelevant.”

Maddow did not ask Hagel about Limbaugh. But prior to the taping, Hagel was not shy about bemoaning Limbaugh’s drag on his party. He told me that Limbaugh was the opposite of what the Republican Party needs now. “We blew eight years of governing,” Hagel said, excoriating GOPers for having “run up” the national debt. “You can only blame Ted Kennedy for so much,” he remarked.

Hagel’s comments about Limbaugh were not surprising. Before he left the Senate last year, after serving two terms, Hagel developed the reputation of an independent Republican. He flirted with a presidential run in 2008 and then backed off. Last summer, he practically endorsed Obama, traveling to Iraq with the Democratic candidate, when John McCain’s campaign was attacking Obama for being soft on defense and accusing him of wanting to lose the war there.

The Rush wars, though, have abated in the past week. Steele has moved on, after apologizing to Limbaugh for calling his broadcasts “ugly” and “incendiary.” Pro-administration groups have throttled back on the anti-Limbaugh ads. The mini-uproar over Limbaugh’s offensive reference to Ted Kennedy’s possible death has subsided. (The new GOP cat-fight is a three-way dust-up involving Laura Ingraham, Meghan McCain, and Ann Coulter.)

But Limbaugh’s not fading away, and Republicans will continue to have to figure out their party’s relationship to the radio provocateur. And Hagel, for one, does not want his party–he still calls himself a Republican–to be fall prey to Limbaugh’s gravitational pull.

Here’s Hagel on The Rachel Maddow Show:

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