By Tim moran
The Star-Ledger
December 2, 2012

In 2009, the two Christies shook hands. Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat, left, greeted former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman at the Monmouth County GOP Headquarters in Freehold. Jennifer Brown/The Star-Ledger

Christie Whitman, the state’s only female governor, is a Republican who believes in abortion rights, gay marriage and compromise. She released a book in 2005 urging the party to take more moderate positions on a range of issues. And while her argument fell flat at the time, many Republicans today are making the same argument. Whitman, 66, was governor from 1994 to 2001, then ran the Environmental Protection Agency until resigning in frustration in 2003. She spoke last week with Star-Ledger Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran. An edited transcript appears below.
Q. Governor, I’d like to get your reaction to Sen. John McCain’s recent comment on abortion rights. Here’s what he said: “I can state my position on abortion but, other than that, leave the issue alone. … I’m proud of my pro-life position and record, but if someone disagrees with me, I respect your views.”

A. I’m delighted. It’s a real change from the language we’ve been hearing, and I believe an appropriate change. You can’t keep saying it’s my way or the highway.

Q. Several key Republicans, who took the Grover Norquist pledge against raising new revenues, now say they will break that pledge. What’s your take on that?

A. It’s a sign of maturity, frankly. As you know, I would not sign the pledge, and he would never endorse me, no matter how many times we cut taxes and balanced budgets and kept spending low. It was all about the pledge.

Look, we face a fiscal cliff. There is no way you’re going to be able to raise taxes enough to pay for it all. But you can’t cover it all with spending cuts either. It has to be a combination. That’s what Simpson-Bowles said, and that’s what every group that’s looked at it honestly has said.

Q. How do you explain the party’s lopsided loss among Hispanic voters?

A. When we’re talking about self-deportation, that’s not something that makes them feel comfortable or wanted. The principles of the party are completely in sync with the traditions of the Hispanic community. Even social conservatives. There are a lot of strong Catholics in the Hispanic community who believe in the anti-abortion message. So it wasn’t that.

It was that Republicans projected an image that we didn’t care, with (Mitt Romney’s) 47 percent comment, the suggestion that people on welfare wanted to be on welfare, and that people who are Hispanic are somehow illegal and we wanted to get rid of them.

Q. How about gay rights? I see you support marriage equality. How does that play in national elections today?

A. It’s playing out at the state level, which is where it should play out. The government’s role should end when a consenting couple has signed the legal papers saying they want to be partners for life for legal purposes. If a church or a mosque or a synagogue will marry the couple, then God bless them.

Q. You wrote once that conservatives should want to leave decisions to individuals rather than the government.

A. That’s the most conservative point of view — you get out of the bedroom and out of people’s personal lives. You show respect for the individual. That’s traditionally what this party is all about.

Q. Let’s talk about the environment: You said in a 2007 Washington Post interview that you resigned as EPA director because Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on easing air pollution rules.

A. I didn’t say it that way. But that was the final straw.

Q. Well, opposition to action on climate change has only grown since then, with people like U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th District) saying he no longer supports cap-and-trade.

A. That’s a disappointment to me. I would hope that things like Sandy have gotten people thinking. And it might. I was surprised to hear mention of a carbon tax. I don’t think that’s going forward, but that it’s even being talked about is significant. I mean, even if you believe humans have nothing to do with it, if you walked outside in the last year, you cannot notice that things are changing.

Q. Bill Clinton pulled the Democrats to the middle on issues like crime, welfare and the deficit. Who could play that role among Republicans today?

A. (House Speaker) John Boehner is trying. He tried to make a reasonable deal on the debt a few years ago and was undermined by his own caucus. And President Obama has the same problem with his liberal caucus. They are digging in and saying no way they’ll touch entitlement programs.

I’m hoping people will understand that, in this election, no one really won a mandate. The president got fewer votes than he did four years ago. And certainly there is no mandate for Republicans. This is a time to seek a middle ground.

Q. Could Chris Christie move the party to the middle?

A. He could. But he’s going to have to deal with the issues he has in front of him in New Jersey. But he certainly has the ability to work across the aisle and bring people together. He can be a voice for that, and he will.

Q. Are you rooting for him to run in 2016?

A. You have to see how the next few years go, but I think absolutely.

Q. How about (former Florida Gov.) Jeb Bush?

A. I don’t think his wife is interested. And it’s tough to take on that role without family support.

Q. What about your future? You’re about the same age as Hillary Clinton. Ever tempted to jump back in, perhaps take on Sen. Frank Lautenberg next year?

A. No, no! As long as I can stay involved in policy, that’s what I like.

Q. Is it some consolation that, seven years after you published your book, at least some in the party seem to be embracing your message?

A. I don’t take it as a personal consolation. But it’s good for the country. We need to have two vibrant parties and I don’t think the Republican Party will remain a viable national voice if it stays on the path it’s been on in the last few years.