The Right Way For The GOP To Go After Obama
By Michelle Williams
September 8, 2009
Christine Todd Whitman, a longtime moderate Republican, has never been shy about sharing her concerns over her party. With the national mood now reminding some observers of 1993 — when Whitman won the New Jersey governorship ahead of 1994’s powerful GOP wave in Congress — she has some advice for the national party as it looks to take advantage of President Obama’s slide in the polls.
NationalJournal.com recently spoke with Whitman about enthusiasm in the GOP’s base and how the party is faring in the health care debate. The former Environmental Protection Agency administrator also spoke about the House climate change bill championed by Democrats Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
NJ: Some have compared the enthusiasm in the GOP’s base right now to what it was in 1993, when you defeated a Democratic incumbent to become New Jersey’s governor. And the next year, of course, a wave of Republicans were elected to Congress. Do you see similarities?
Whitman: Oh, I certainly see it. From the Democrats’ point of view, I understand why they’re very nervous about what might happen here and in Virginia because the parallels are striking, actually. It could mean a real shift, especially with the president having the kind of difficulties he’s having now even holding his own coalition together on the major issues such as health care. To have a kind of visible flag set in the ground that says the momentum is changing is not something that you’re going to want to encourage.
NJ: Your former press secretary Carl Golden recently wrote an op-ed saying that Gov. Jon Corzine “has attempted to take [Republican challenger Chris] Christie’s strong suit — honesty, integrity, a sense of being above petty political scheming — and turn it against him.” He said Christie “seems to have been knocked off balance.” How would you rate Christie’s reaction and his chances of winning the race?
Whitman: I think his chances of winning are good. I haven’t been overwhelmed by his reaction. They were caught off guard, and that shouldn’t have happened. I mean, you’ve got to do the kind of background check on yourself, and your campaign has got to ask the tough questions so that you know absolutely anything that might be coming out….
It’s a non-issue if you compare it to what Jon Corzine did with funding basically the head of the largest union in the state, the Communications Workers of America, while he was having an affair with her and funding her and continuing to fund her after he became governor and they were in contract negotiations. Chris Christie’s loan doesn’t amount to that. Now, having left it off his taxes was not a good thing, obviously. But it’s something that could have been handled a little more fluidly…. [Christie’s campaign] can’t presume because he’s so far ahead in the polls right now that this is how it’s going to stay through Election Day. This state is notorious for people making up their minds at the last minute.
NJ: On your Republican Leadership Council Web site, one commenter said that “there is no chance of the GOP getting back into power” in its current form. Do you agree?
Whitman: I do. I mean, I think we have to be more positively proactive. It’s not just that we want, for instance, health care to be Obama’s Waterloo. I think we ought to recognize that health care is a serious issue about which many Americans are concerned. We don’t like what he’s proposing, that’s fine… but we should be also putting equal amount of push behind what Republicans think is the right way to approach the health care issue.
We ought to be talking more about tort reform. That, to me, is something where the president has totally walked away from something that’s a major component if you’re going to have real health care reform and drive down costs. It’s a natural for Republicans. We need to be offering the public what we would do in a positive way. Unfortunately, I recognize it’s hard for the minority party to get the positive message out, that in general it’s not what sells papers or gets people to listen to the radio or watch television. It’s not the sexy side of things. But they still, I think, could put more pressure on to get that message out.
NJ: According to recent polls, Obama’s popularity has been slipping. How well do you think Republicans have been capitalizing on this?
Whitman: Well, obviously the fears that have been stirred up about health care and the concerns that have been raised about health care have played a big role in the reduction of the president’s popularity…. So to the extent that that tactic has worked, if your object is to just stop him and drive down his poll numbers, OK, you’re doing it, and that’s fine. If the object is to govern the country and provide answers to very difficult problems that we need to solve for the good of the country, then I’m not sure we’ve done all that we can do….
I don’t know quite what the thinking is. I understand politics, believe me. And I understand not wanting to have him be as high in the polls as he’s been. But this year would be the year I would think that the Congress would be more relaxed about it. It’s next year when they’re all up for re-election and he can go in and campaign and build on that positive ID. So they have plenty of time to take him down. They’ve got a major issue right now that needs to be solved, and I think the American people are looking for some of that positive. But I also think they have done a very good job in pushing back and having the Democrats try to disparage everyone who’s gone to these town meetings and spoken out against health care.
NJ: Is there anything that you would like to add about your hopes for the health care debate?
Whitman: My real concern is that I don’t want to see Republicans, particularly, demagogue this issue to the point where we’re not actively engaged in some positive effort to solve it. It’s an important issue and we need to do something about it or our children are going to pay the price, as will we. I understand the need to stand on principle and point out where the flaws are in what’s being proposed, and I certainly see many of them. But on the other hand, it’s something where we have, I believe, a responsibility to come forward and be very strong on what it is that we offer as the alternative.
And we have them. Those plans are there, and they’re bipartisan plans. As I said a couple of times since Teddy Kennedy died, the interesting thing to me is no one ever questioned his partisanship. He was a hard-core Democrat. He had a 90-plus ADA rating. And yet, if you look at the history of the Senate, he probably sponsored, co-sponsored, more bipartisan pieces of legislation that were enacted into law that had major consequence for the public than anybody else. And yet because he compromised, because he got these things done, no one said he wasn’t a Democrat. No one said he wasn’t a liberal. You don’t have to give up your principles if you try to move something through for the greater good.
NJ: Moving on to the environment: Would cap-and-trade be effective at reducing carbon and will it be worth it?
Whitman: You know, the “worth it” part is hard to judge until you know exactly where they set the parameters, what the time frame is and what the levels are.
I believe cap-and-trade can work. It worked with SO2 reduction. I understand carbon is a very different emission, but it worked there, and there were all the same kind of concerns evidenced in the beginning. As with most things, the devil’s in the details. Depending on where you set the levels, and how quickly people have to meet them, it can work without sending the economy into a tailspin.
The interesting thing to me is that you would have to have a significant — almost 150 more nuclear plants brought on line during that time period to meet the 2050 goals that are set out in the Waxman bill. If you’re going to meet them, you can’t do it on conservation and renewable energy alone. You’re going to have to have nuclear. Yet at the same time, the Democrats on the Hill are not encouraging nuclear energy. They’re doing some things to slow it down and make it more difficult, and the administration isn’t fighting for it. So I don’t know how they’re going to plan to meet these goals irrespective of how effective they’re going to be on carbon, just in general.
NJ: I know you drive a Prius, and you’ve said the country needs to get used to driving smaller cars because gas prices are going to rise. But when gas prices are low, as they have been recently, demand for large vehicles goes right back up.
Whitman: I know. I know [laughs]. We’re not consistent.
NJ: What do you think about the idea of setting a federal price floor for gasoline, so manufacturers can plan ahead instead of being at the mercy of changes in demand for smaller cars based on the fluctuating price of gas?
Whitman: Well, I’m always very reluctant when we talk about increasing taxes at the federal level. Obviously the way to change behavior, we’ve seen that, is through price. That’s what does it, and taxes are a way to determine that. But I’d be very careful in encouraging the federal government to raise taxes. I’d be worried about how exactly that money was going to be used, what it was really for and the kind of burden it would put on people. But that is the most direct way to affect behavior, no question about it.