Christine Todd Whitman on green and moderate politics in the GOP

By Joseph Cotto
The Washington Times
July 22, 2012

FLORIDA, July 22, 2012 — Much is being said about women’s issues and how they relate to Republican politics these days.

During her extensive career in public office, Christine Todd Whitman managed to transcend the glass ceiling. The former two-term Governor of New Jersey and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has seen more than a few major events unfold across the American political landscape.

Now an advocate for moderate political and environmental causes, she is trying to pave the way for a more reasonable Republican Party.

She spoke to me about much more than bipartisanship and green issues, though.

How can the GOP seriously compete for votes beyond its base? Is there a better way to handle women’s issues than railing against abortion rights? Should balancing the budget be considered before cutting taxes?

Perhaps most importantly, might reasonable politicians ever be able to rise above the dogmas of the far-left and the far-right?

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Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics, especially as far as environmental issues are concerned. While you were the governor of New Jersey, finding consensus on what was best for the environment was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?

Governor Christine Todd Whitman: Partisanship today is much deeper, much more pervasive than when I was in office. Sadly, both parties are looking for divisive issues, ones that will bring them political points and appeal to the base rather than the ones that will bring people together.
In tough economic times, the idea that government tells you to do anything is abhorrent to the Republican base, and that makes it easier to make people believe that our growth problems are increasingly due to environmental regulation, which they are not. From 1970 when the EPA was established to the 1990’s people demanded environmental protection. Republicans and Democrats worked together and we saw both a cleaner environment and economic growth. People were listening – people aren’t listening anymore. Today everything is decided along ideological lines.

Cotto: Global warming is a highly contentious subject. Many Republican politicians claim that human actions have no real impact on the environment’s long term stability. What is your opinion about this?

Gov. Whitman: The earth has been changing since it was formed, however, the speed at which it is changing now indicates that there are new pressures from land use changes and added pollutants. Remember, in 1990 when acid rain was killing trees and lakes in New England, nobody denied the impact was due to acid rain. The Clean Air Amendments were enacted and the forest and lakes regenerated – we could easily see the cause and effect from pollution. To think humans are having no impact on the environment is shortsighted and naïve.

Cotto: Many conservationist Republicans believe that looking after the environment should be considered a bedrock value of conservatism. How do you think that pro-environment policies can make a comeback within the GOP?

Gov. Whitman: We need to continue to emphasize the truth that environmental protection is part of our history. You can start with President Lincoln and Yosemite, Teddy Roosevelt vastly expanded the national parks system, Republican presidents and Democrat-controlled congresses accomplished all the major environmental legislation, including establishing the EPA. Conservation has been a part of the Republican ethos in the past.

Unfortunately, unless there’s a change, we’re going to get back to the place we were in 1970 – people were dying because of bad air quality, rivers were spontaneously combusting. It may take crises like that to get us focused once again.

Cotto: You made history as New Jersey’s first female governor. Did you experience any especially demanding challenges because of this? How would you describe your two terms in Trenton?

Gov. Whitman: I didn’t analyze the challenges we faced as being because I am female – the challenges were the ambitious programs we were trying to achieve. I’m proud of my record – the income tax cut, curriculum standards, environmental advancements, and welfare reform, among many others. The more people look at it, the more people recognize that we accomplished many important things. Many of our programs, including reformations in juvenile courts, alternative courts, and regulations on downtown redevelopment, are still national models.

Cotto: Today, more women than ever before are playing a role in Republican politics. However, many across the country fear that certain politicians are attempting to erode women’s rights. Do you believe that this is a valid concern? Regardless, what do you think the GOP should do to increase its share of the female vote?

Gov. Whitman: I do think there is an inherent attack on women’s abilities to run their own lives. The Republican Party needs to speak to the issues that women care about – taxes, education, and health care. And the party needs to give more than lip service to female candidates – putting women up in places they can actually win, not just showing off a female candidate in a race she’s bound to lose. We as a party need to be cultivating our female candidates and giving them financial support when they choose to run.

Cotto: Issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage are lightning rods for socially rightist elements of the Republican base. Particularly in closed primaries, radical, unelectable candidates often win by campaigning on these alone. As an advocate for moderation on social matters, do you suppose that this will prove to be an enduring problem? How might it be allayed?

Gov. Whitman: It’ll be a problem as long as candidates win general elections running on extreme base issues. What will stop it is when those more extreme candidates lose those elections after winning primaries running on the far-right issues. Those candidates are running on issues that are not key for the majority of the voting public.

A few polls that came out right before the Obamacare Supreme Court decision came down gave a window into what voters care about – they were far more focused on jobs, taxes, and the economy than even the repeal of “Obamacare.” If health care isn’t the major concern, abortion and gay marriage are clearly only base issues – they appeal to a small, but extremely vocal minority.

Cotto: While governor, you fulfilled a campaign promise to lower state taxes by 10 percent per year for three years. How do you think that America’s dire financial situation can be earnestly dealt with at the federal level? Are tax cuts in order, or should Congress focus on other solutions?

Gov. Whitman: It has to be a combination. Tax cuts spur spending, which spurs growth, but you can’t do that in a vacuum – you have to balance the budget. Until we take deficit and spending seriously, not going to take care of our growth issues. The Simpson–Bowles plan should have been where we started. I really do view it as a failure of leadership that President Obama did not use that plan as a starting point. It touched on all issues – not all perfectly, and there would certainly have been changes, but it outlined how we need to address every angle given the seriousness of our economic situation.

Cotto: Across the political spectrum, libertarianism is on the upswing. Specifically in the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are storming the establishment’s gates, so to speak. At the same time, social rightists are attempting to become the GOP’s dominant faction. All of this has left moderates more or less out of the picture. During the years ahead, which path do you see the Party taking?

Gov. Whitman: If the current party direction continues, we are going to lurch right until we have major defeat as we did in 1964 after Goldwater was so wrong on so many issues. He designed his strategy to appeal to Southern Democrats and those votes were basically all he got at the ballot box. Today we are designing our platform for our perceived base, but let’s not forget that more of the Republican base voted for John McCain than voted for George W. Bush, but McCain lost.

Until that happens a few more times, we’re going to become increasingly irrelevant on the national stage. We need to offer an alternative to the usual primary process so thoughtful people don’t have to go through the partisan process that forces them to the left or right. That’s why I supported Americans Elect.

Cotto: Late last year, you encouraged Jon Huntsman to run for president as a third party candidate. What, from your perspective, are the future prospects for third parties in America? Do you think that Mitt Romney will be able to defeat President Obama in the fall?

Gov. Whitman: There’s a lot in that question! I don’t know that a third party will be successful, but a third way of accessing the ballot, maybe – that’s why I supported Americans Elect. It was another way for credible candidates to get on the ballot without having to move to the right or the left in the highly partisan process we have right now.

As for the election, it is going to be close and it will hinge on the economy. Consumer spending and unemployment seem to be getting a little bit better, but the economy is still very volatile. While a Romney victory is possible, if the economy is perceived as healthier, it is going to be tough to beat Obama.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be such a revered figure in politics and environmental causes. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Gov. Whitman: I was the 50th Governor of the State of New Jersey from 1994-2011 and I served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January of 2001 until June of 2003. I was fortunate to have a very stable, loving family and to have been encouraged to try anything I wanted to do.

I was a tomboy from the get go and spent as much time as I could outside fishing, riding, boating and hiking, which gave me an early appreciation for the environment and man’s impact on it. I was told early on that anything worth doing was worth doing well and I could achieve what I wanted if I was willing to work for it.