Most people disenchanted with the United States' two-party political system think we should have more parties; Christine Todd Whitman seems to think two is one too many.
Whitman, the two-term New Jersey governor and half-term Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George W. Bush, is urging both parties-but particularly her own Republican Party-to hightail it toward the center. Her ideal, it seems, is one big, happy Moderate Party.
She's written a book, It's My Party Too, that decries the GOP's embrace of a right-wing lot she calls the "social fundamentalists." In their minds, she said last Thursday night in La Jolla, "if you're pro-choice, you can't be a good Republican. If you even believe we should have a beginning of a discussion on embryonic stem-cell [research], you're not a good Republican. If you don't believe we ought to change the Constitution, for only the second time ever, to restrict individual freedoms, you're not a good Republican. If you believe that government does have a role in protecting the environment, you're not a good Republican."
Several times during her appearance, a public conversation with the Union-Tribune's Bob Kittle at the Neurosciences Institute, she distinguished such extremists from "thinking conservatives."
What's Whitman up to? Some think she's setting the stage for a 2008 presidential campaign-perhaps the first race ever featuring two strong women, Whitman and Hillary Clinton, whom Whitman said is making a mad dash to the political center, "because that's where the votes are."
Whitman downplayed the notion when Kittle noted that writing a book is often a way to stake a claim on a presidential campaign platform. "Writing a book might be-I don't think it's writing a book like this," she said. "The way to get the nomination, particularly in a party like mine, is not to poke a stick in the middle of a hornet's nest."
In her book, Whitman complains that the Republicans' courtship of social conservatives who question the sociopolitical agenda of SpongeBob SquarePants will harm the party down the road, perhaps pushing many moderates-whom she said make up 40 percent of the electorate-into the arms of the Democrats, should they nominate themselves a strong moderate in 2008.
The Republicans "have boxed themselves into a corner," she said, noting that Bush's political guru, Karl Rove, was charged with delivering to the GOP more seats in Congress and securing his boss' reelection. "But he did it by focusing on the 4 million evangelicals who had not voted in 2000," she said, "and that made them feel very empowered, and it has given them a feeling that they now can push back against the president if he wants to be more moderate."
She cited as an example some conservative groups' vow to withhold support of Bush's social security reforms unless he renews his call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
"Instead of competing for that middle, it's all about hardening the base, making sure your base turns out," she said. "And that means that every election gets more and more partisan, because that's how you get your base out." Such pandering portends dire post-election consequences, she added-it's difficult after an election to come back together to accomplish any meaningful public policy.
In the event she's fibbing about a run for president, Whitman would hit the campaign trail with a mix-and-match platform. On the liberal side, in addition to being pro-choice and against a gay-marriage ban, she clashed with her old boss on environmental issues. She favored a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and she left the EPA essentially because the Bush administration was too lenient on permits for factory, refinery and power plant modifications.
Her conservative side is reserved mostly for fiscal matters-she favors the tax cut as an economic stimulant buts says it works only in concert with controlled spending.
As for foreign policy, she said, "I do believe that we are much safer if we have freedom and elected representative governments around the world, rather than what we see in some of the fundamentalist countries. The best way to do that is through economic policies, because the prime breeding ground for terrorists is poverty and unemployment."
She didn't make too much about Bush's inauguration speech, in which he vowed to get tough with tyrannical foreign governments. The U.S. can't invade countries like Iran because it doesn't have the available military necessary, but added that Libya backed down on its nuclear program because of the administration's tough talk.
Whitman set herself apart from GOP hawks by mentioning the war in Iraq and war on terror as two distinct beasts.Whether she's running or not, 2008 is never far from her thoughts. She noted that it'll be the first time since 1952 that no incumbents, including vice presidents, are running. "So," she said, "it's the perfect time for the parties to step back and take a look at where they are and where they're going."