By Julie Mack
October 26, 2013
KALAMAZOO, MI — You can count Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, as among those surprised and disappointed by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s hard turn to the right.
Disavowing the role of carbon emissions on climate change? Pushing to strip power from the EPA?
That’s not the Fred Upton that Whitman once knew, she said in a candid discussion of Republican politics during a visit Tuesday to the Kalamazoo Gazette news hub. Whitman, who now heads the the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, made the visit in advance of a talk Wednesday at Western Michigan University.
“I’m surprised at some of his rhetoric,” Whitman said about Upton. “It’s probably because of his chairmanship” of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a plum gig but one that requires Upton to toe the line on current GOP philosophy.
Whitman — who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush — said she is perplexed by the GOP’s current hostility to environmental regulation, which she sees as a rejection of the party’s historic roots.
She notes that Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s first Republican president, also was the first to set federal land as a national park, preserving the Yosemite Valley. Teddy Roosevelt, another Republican, created the U.S. Forest Service and greatly expanded the land under federal protection. The EPA was started by Richard Nixon, yet another Republican.
It’s true, she says, that the EPA has overreached at times. But she opposes the current drive among some Republicans to abolish the agency.
“I don’t understand Republicans who are so against the environment,” Whitman said, adding the environment is “a very Republican issue. … It’s mind-boggling to me that they don’t understand the importance.”
But then, Whitman is frustrated by her party in general, to the point where she says she really can’t call herself a Republican anymore.
“I don’t think I’m part of the party anymore,” she sighed. “I’m part of the Abraham Lincoln, Eisenhower wing.”
While Whitman acknowledges moderate Republicans are a disappearing demographic, she also says the resurgence of that brand of Republicanism is “the only way we’re going to be relevant as a national party.”
With the recent stand-off over the debt ceiling, more Republicans are realizing that “they blew it big time,” said Whitman. The just-concluded impasse shows that the “extreme, no-how, no-way,” style of negotiation isn’t working, she said.
It also isn’t a way to win elections, she said. “Well, it can win primaries” and House seats, she said, “but you can’t win a national election” by appealing only to the party base.
That’s why New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s message has had such resonance, said Whitman, who still lives in New Jersey.
“He’s a leader; he’s taken on the big issues. You can object to his style, perhaps,” but he’s shown how a conservative Republican governor can be popular and effective in largely Democratic state, she said.
Whitman said it’s clear that he’s positioning himself for a 2016 presidential campaign.
“Oh, he’s going to run,” she said, although she ducked a question on whether she would endorse him.
It’s clear that to be successful in statewide and presidential elections, a candidate has to appeal to political centrists, she said.
While party operatives on both sides are both moving to the extreme edges, said Whitman, “the middle, the nonaffiliated voter, is what’s growing.”
The American people are saying, “a pox on both your houses,” she said, and Americans are a “pretty sensible people.”
Whitman said a big problem in Washington right now is that consensus and compromise are seen as a weakness instead of a virtue.
When she went through her EPA confirmation hearings in 2001, “I was told never to use the word compromise, because when you use it, people think they’ve lost something even if they don’t know what it is,” Whitman said.
“Don’t these people know their history?” she said. “They talk so much about the Constitution, but Jefferson and Adams didn’t always agree. They reached consensus, and there’s no crime in that.”