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Bill Berkowitz: Are Moderate Repubs A Dying Breed?

Whitman's Crusade Could Be Running On Empty

Having failed to moderate the president's environmental agenda, what makes her think she can moderate the GOP?
Bill Berkowitz

Ever since Nelson Rockefeller was found naked and dead -- on top of, or underneath, his previously unknown 27-year-old girlfriend Megan Marshak in 1979 -- I've had a certain soft spot for the so-called Eastern Liberal Republican Establishment. However, in reality, Rockefeller, the former Governor of New York who instigated draconian drug laws in 1973 and was the mastermind behind the 1971 massacre at New York's Attica Prison, wasn't all that liberal, but he was plenty elite.

By passing in such a memorable and glorious fashion, Rocky, the multi-millionaire grandson of John D. Rockefeller, left an indelible impression; even more extraordinary than anything he accomplished as vice president under Gerald Ford in those few years (1974-77) after Nixon's forced departure over Watergate. The best thing about the Eastern Liberal Republican Establishment was that while they were ripping you off in the corporate boardrooms, they didn't pay all that much attention to what was going on in America's bedrooms.

Although there are still a few moderate Republicans hanging by a thread to the party of Lincoln, the Eastern Liberal elite has been basically neutered by the neo-conservatives and radical Christian fundamentalists that run today's GOP. Those that are left may still think that they can exert some influence on the party's agenda, but they're heavily outnumbered and massively outgunned.

Christine Todd Whitman Steps into the Fray

Christine Todd Whitman is the consummate Republican. As the Charlotte Observer's Jack Betts points out, "She grew up in a... Republican household. Her mother was the Republican National Committeewoman from New Jersey for years; her father was the state GOP chairman; and as a young girl she presented the just re-nominated President Dwight Eisenhower with a set of golf tees as he stepped off the stage at the Republican National Convention in 1956." Whitman worked for President Nixon, reporting to Donald Rumsfeld at the Office of Economic Opportunity.

These days, Whitman has a problem with the makeup of her party: it's an ideological problem that will neither bankrupt her nor disturb her more than lavish lifestyle.

As President Bush's first head of the Environmental Protection Agency Whitman came with high hopes and expectations. Instead, as she reveals in her new book, It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America (Penguin Press, 2005), Whitman realized early on that the Bush Administration's agenda for the environment was more than slightly out of step with her own. But, she was appointed to serve the president -- after all, she hadn't been elected to anything. So the pro-choice, pro-gay former two-term Governor of New Jersey set out to do no harm and if possible, do some good.

Although Whitman failed in her efforts to moderate the Bush Administration's environmental agenda, she now is taking on an even larger task -- saving the Republican Party from the far-right ideologues that are in control.

In an admission that really doesn't seem nearly as startling as perhaps she wanted it to sound, Whitman says she may have underestimated the president's interest in environmental issues. In a recent interview with More magazine's Meryl Gordon, Whitman said that when the White House's Karl Rove told her that her job was key to the president's reelection, she interpreted that to mean that "her job was to give the President a good environmental record."

"In fact," writes Gordon, the president "wanted the EPA to send a strong message that, in contrast to the Clinton administration, Bush was 'much more sensitive to property rights and mining and industry in general, and less aggressive in enforcement.'" Whitman's book talks about her growing disenchantment over the administration's environmental agenda and how that led to her decision to leave office to "spend more time with my family."

Some of Whitman's wounds were clearly self-inflicted; early on, she shot herself in the foot when she indicated an interest in delaying lowering the amount of permissible arsenic in the water supply. "I just wanted to take another look. I wanted to see if there was anything we needed to do to mitigate the financial impact," she writes. She took a justified hammering in the press for that gaffe.

In early 2001, after having to retract a pledge to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to combat global warming -- a concept the administration still hasn't warmed to -- Whitman met with Bush. "As soon as the President and I sat down, I realized that I wasn't there to state my case -- I was there to be told that he had decided to reverse himself," she writes. "He knew that his decision was leaving me out on a limb."

And after 9/11, Whitman did an especially poor job dealing with the toxic nightmare at Ground Zero. One week after the terrorist attacks, as workers began returning to their jobs in Lower Manhattan, Whitman announced "I am glad to reassure the people of New York... that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." According to New York Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez, "Whitman, Mayor Giuliani, and the other public officials should have told New Yorkers the truth from the start -- that no one could guarantee the air around Ground Zero was safe because no one had ever confronted a disaster of such proportions. They should also have released all the raw data on government testing as soon as they had the results and made clear that safety levels for many of these toxins did not even exist."

(Gonzalez's book, Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse - The New Press. 160 pages, 2002), details the environmental devastation caused by 9/11 and the EPA's attempt to whitewash the dangers. He points out the potential long term consequences for not only the dedicated workers who day after day labored under tremendously difficult circumstances to clean up the site, but for those people who work and live in the surrounding community.)

"I believe that the intransigence on both extremes of the environmental debate is preventing significant progress that might be made if there was less fixation on doing away with all regulations on one side, and with writing more and more regulations on the other, and that a more sincere effort is needed to promote positive economic incentives for businesses to make improvements," she writes.

Moderating the Party

Now, Whitman has embarked on what More magazine's Gordon calls a "quixotic crusade, trying to turn the priorities of an entire political party without bruising feelings." Whitman wants to broaden the party's base, but ever the politician, she remains concerned that her criticisms might be too harsh, or that she may be seen as disloyal to the president. She no doubt witnessed the price a former administration insider could pay for perceived "disloyalty." The steady pounding of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, whose book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neil, led to the launching of a major White House campaign to discredit him.

So Whitman offers up a kinder, gentler approach: In the book, Gordon writes, Whitman "tries so hard to be conciliatory and, yes, ladylike, that the book is schizoid: a white-glove critique of hardball tactics." In the end, Whitman recognizes that "The problem moderates have is that we're a little squishy. We see several sides and are reluctant to force our opinion down other people's throats."

Compare Whitman's attempt at a civilized critique with the rant from Bob Jones III, the President of Bob Jones University. Shortly after Bush's victory in November, Jones sent the president a note full of well-intentioned suggestions:

"In your re-election, God has graciously granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate.... Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ....Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years -- a brief time only -- to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God.... If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them."

Former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully, author of Dominion: The Power of Men, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the "basic problem with [Whitman's] book is that although moderation is a good and praiseworthy trait in politics, as in everything else, it is not by itself a political principle or call to action. Moderation is a virtue of character, like civility or modesty, but without a guiding conviction it can become a peculiar little orthodoxy of its own, as sanctimonious as anything to be found on the political right or left."

Flame throwing columnist Ann Coulter regards Whitman's book as "a pastiche of superficially appealing factoids that are supposed to demonstrate the vast, untapped demand for 'moderate Republicans.' The only problem with her arguments is that they immediately fall apart if you know any facts." And Gary Bauer, the far right Christian activist, claims that Whitman "seems intent on leading a civil war to push social conservatives out of the 'big tent' once and for all."

At Whitman's new Web site, It's My Party Too, the former Governor urges on the party's centrists: "It is time for moderates in the Republican Party to become activists… activists for the sensible center, for reasonable policies based on the fundamental republican principles, which address the challenges Americans face at home and around the world." They've launched "It's My Party Too PAC" or IMP-PAC, "a political action committee dedicated to supporting fiscally conservative, socially progressive moderate Republican candidates at all levels of government." IMP-PAC's list of strategic partners, which includes The Log Cabin Republicans, The Main Street Coalition, Republicans for Choice, Republicans for Environmental Protection, and the WISH List seems like a collection of the left over and left behind.

She has lined up some old-school "centrists" for her Advisory Board, including Jim Courter, Lewis M. Eisenberg, David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, President Gerald R. Ford, Michael Huffington, former Senator Nancy Kassenbaum Baker, Amo Haughton, William G. Milliken, former Senator Alan Simpson, Candace L. Straight, and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld.

Can Whitman's IMP-PAC rescue the party from Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, from Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell, from Bill Frist and Dr. James Dobson, from Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich? When the campaign unfolded to deny fellow Republican, Senator Arlen Specter, his rightful place as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, why were the voices listed on the advisory board so silent? Can it raise enough money to back moderate Republican candidates? Does she really believe she has the strategy, forces and political wherewithal to save this Party?

Perhaps a more accurate title for Whitman's book would have been It's Their Party and I'll Cry Cause I Have To.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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