Tom Ridge reflects on years of service

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It's not far as the crow flies, but the cultural leap from the working-class streets of the Steel Valley to the elegant confines of the Duquesne Club covers a considerable distance on the road of life.

A former kid of Munhall was the center of attention last week at the Duquesne Club when a bipartisan crowd feted Republican Tom Ridge as Mercyhurst College marked the formation of the Thomas and Michelle Ridge Collection, an archive for the documents chronicling the former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Cabinet secretary's long public career. In his remarks, Mr. Ridge was in auld lang syne mode as he looked back on those years and the colleagues with whom he had served.

But in a subsequent interview, he offered more hard-edged critiques of the nation's international threats and the future of a party that has become less hospitable to the moderate brand of Republicanism reflected in his career. The first secretary of homeland security sees a nation better protected against some traditional threats but still vulnerable to newer digital dangers. He was supportive but wary of the re-election prospects of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, while warning that at the national level that the influence of ideologues averse to compromise are clouding his party's prospects.

Mr. Ridge spoke Tuesday, just hours before the stunning primary defeat of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor would renew the debate about whether the pursuit of the strongest conservative principles would energize or hobble the GOP as it tries to recapture the White House in 2016.

Assessing the GOP's immediate future, Mr. Ridge said, "I'm not happy that ... there's a small group of people within the party that have an ideological mindset that I think is corrosive and disruptive and demeaning to the party's tradition and its future."

Invoking the tensions that "the brilliance of the Founding Fathers" accommodated, he said, "There was a separation of powers; there was a balance. It was almost designed to bring compromise. ... The Constitution itself is a series of compromises, so I'm really troubled by hard-right, ideological, unbending, my-way-or-the-highway mindset."

"I think most Americans are moderate to conservative; very few Americans are ideological," he added.

The former governor also was skeptical about the political value of an emphasis on social issues.

"We'll always be the pro-life party, I get that, but I think that as long as we make the social issues -- abortion and gays, and I'm going to throw immigration in there -- as a cause celebre, and we have to be hard right, unbending, unyielding, we're going to have trouble building a national constituency to support our [presidential candidate] in 2016," said Mr. Ridge, who generally supported abortion rights in Congress and in Harrisburg

The former governor was adamant that his party had lost its way on one volatile issue.

"I think we're just flat wrong on immigration," he said. "This notion that somehow we're going to identify and send 12 million people back is ludicrous. It's outrageous; it's not dealing with reality. People like to use that as a third rail to show how tough they are."

He contended that the obstructionism of some opponents regarding overhauling immigration perpetuates the very problems they criticize.

"It's not just about politics; it's about doing the right thing," he said. "Every day you don't do something about the problem that exists, then you are as much to blame for the status quo as anyone else, ... but [House Speaker John] Boehner has this cadre of ideologues who want to go back home and beat their chests and tell everybody how tough they are, and I think it's morally wrong, it's morally objectionable, [and] it's politically wrong.''

Closer to home, Mr. Ridge acknowledged that Mr. Corbett faces a challenge in his bid for re-election.

He lauded the primary campaign of Democratic nominee Tom Wolf, saying, "Right now, he's a juggernaut.''

He said Mr. Corbett's best hope for overcoming that juggernaut was to remind voters of the tough budget situation he confronted in 2011.

"I don't think the general public appreciates that he inherited a more then $4 billion deficit. On top of that, he had a recession, so what do you do? You either cut spending or you raise taxes, ... and I think he's got to remind people of the snapshot of what a mess he inherited and the fact that he was able to work his way through it without taking any money out of their back pockets."

From the perspective of his former role as chief of homeland security, Mr. Ridge sees a nation safer from some physical threats but still struggling to cope with cybersecurity.

"The possibility of digital attacks, whether terrorists, nation states, hacktivists, competitors -- it has really changed how you do business and, frankly, how governments organize themselves to defend themselves against a new kind of warfare. ... It's happening right now, from the digital warfare that is going on all the time, and, to that extent, we're not as prepared as we should be."

Mr. Ridge was skeptical of some recent administration moves to counter that digital threat. In particular, he criticized the Justice Department's decision, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's office in the Western District of Pennsylvania, to indict a group of Chinese military figures accused of hacking corporate computers here and across the country.

"[When] I read that, I didn't know whether I was irritated or amused," he said. Does anybody at Justice think that the Chinese military is going to extradite five military guys to the U.S.? ... The value of indicting those guys is lost on me."

David Hickton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, strongly defended the legal tactic.

"I admire Gov. Ridge and respect his service to our nation," he said. "There are people who think that the status quo with respect to the exfiltration of the intellectual property of the American industrial base is acceptable. I am not among them, and this administration believes we can do better and must do better. While this is a change and it will be difficult, we are here to do the hard work and to do the right thing," he continued. "The corporations which invest in research and development deserve our efforts, the workers that they employ deserve our efforts, and our nation is dependent on our hard work."

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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