WASHINGTON -- The GOP needs to change, former Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Ridge said in a brief but wide-ranging interview Thursday.
He was speaking at the National Press Club after helping Allegheny College award its third annual Prize for Civility in Public Life to the women of the U.S. Senate, and he had harsh words for one of their male colleagues, Texas senator and Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, who forced last fall's government shutdown to make his case for repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Ridge is no fan of the health care law, either, but said Mr. Cruz approached the issue as an ideologue, not the kind of leader the party needs in 2016.
"He's a smart guy, he's an able man, and he knew in his heart of hearts that President Obama was not going to wave the white flag on Obamacare," Mr. Ridge said. Mr. Cruz "put the country through a two-week period of uncertainty -- into chaos. He destabilized the political system. He may feel good about it, but as a Republican I don't care for the tactics."
Mr. Ridge would prefer to see New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016. Ms. Martinez has said the country is due for a female president, but she isn't interested in running herself. Mr. Ridge hopes she'll change her mind after being elected, he hopes, to a second term as governor in November.
She has proven she can win over Democrats, becoming governor of a state where only 32 percent of voters registered as Republican.
"It's a small state, yes, but the problems are the same and she's handled them beautifully down there," Mr. Ridge said.
Still, Ms. Martinez isn't a name Washington insiders mention when they speculate about prospects for 2016. Mr. Ridge believes that would change if Ms. Martinez were to show an interest.
"She loves governing, she's very articulate, she's got a great personal story," he said, "and when she inherited fiscal problems ... she jumped into the fray and she resolved a lot of them."
He said the party should be more concerned with its platform than with who its 2016 nominee will be.
"Before you worry about the messenger you have to be concerned about the message, and I want this party to be the nonjudgmental Republican party that offers solutions rather than just say no to everything," Mr. Ridge said.
Mr. Ridge, who supports abortion rights, knows his party won't change its stance on abortion. That's OK, he said, as long as it isn't "the epicenter of the party." He also wants the party to rethink its views on immigration reform and gay rights.
"The Republican Party talks about the value of the individual," he said. "Well, there's no greater freedom than to think what you think and be what you are, as long as you aren't breaking the law.
"Freedom is that you can be who you want to be and you're not going to suffer because of your sexuality."
Mr. Ridge also weighed in on Pennsylvania's upcoming gubernatorial election. Incumbent Tom Corbett isn't getting the credit he deserves, at least in political polls, said Mr. Ridge, who has hosted fundraisers for Mr. Corbett's re-election campaign.
"He inherited a government that was in disarray, in a bad economy," Mr. Ridge said. "Anybody could raise taxes to get out of the hole but he said, 'No, we've got to put a hold on the spending.' "
He said Mr. Corbett isn't short-sighted but instead made decisions that will help the state in the long term, and some of the results haven't been fully realized yet. With a strong field of bright candidates in the Democratic primary, Mr. Corbett will have a clear challenge in November and there is a lot of room to grow poll numbers, Mr. Ridge said.
Still, he said he's not worried.
"It's February," he said. "There are eight months to go" before Election Day.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.