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Christine Todd Whitman's Sampler: Is She Whining Or Warning In Her New Book?


Friday, Feb. 25, 2005

Based on its reviews, her new book does not appear to have won her many friends on either side of the aisle. But those who dismiss her, and her book, do so at their peril. This book is an intriguing report from within the ranks of the Republican party - where, it turns out, not everyone is marching in lockstep to "Onward Christian Soldiers."

I found Whitman's book fascinating, but in the end, disappointing.

The Right's Harsh Reactions to Whitman and Her Book

Governor Whitman holds the right-wing of her party in minimal high esteem, as the diplomats say. And she is exceedingly diplomatic throughout her book - which is a plea for a return to sanity in the Republican Party. But her civility is not reciprocated, particularly by her critics on the right. Maybe they can't help themselves.

For example, they call her an "air head," a "jerkweed" (I have no idea what that means), a "back-stabber," an "embarrassment," a "dimwhitman," a "whiner," and -- most often -- a "RINO" ("Republican in Name Only.")

Whitman notes in her book that she has often been labeled a RINO. But she notes, too, that it was RINOs who made it possible for the GOP to obtain a GOP majority in Congress, not to mention the White House.

Conservative Christian activist Gary Bauer has managed to completely misunderstand what Whitman writes in her book, turning it upside down. Bauer claims that Whitman "seems intent on leading a civil war to push social conservatives out of the 'big tent' once and for all." But that is not her intention at all, and the book makes that plain.

Frankly, I wish Whitman had taken such a position. To the contrary, she merely wishes to return her party to the center, and to civility - ending the current divisive politics promoted by the conservatives. "It doesn't have to be this way," she explains. "You can be passionate and civil, believe deeply and yet respect the beliefs of others."

But she is wrong. It does have to be that way -- for the zealots. It is the only way they seem to know how to perform in the political arena.

The Bushies' Unofficial Views on Whitman's Contentions

It is the intolerance of the "ideological zealots" that Whitman repeatedly attacks in her book. It is obvious, however, that the Bushies don't get it.

At least, that is true if former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully is representative of his associates. Scully's book Dominion: The Power of Men, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy takes a commendable and sensitive position concerning the brutal treatment humans employ against animals lower than themselves on the food chain. But when it comes to Whitman, Scully doesn't have much compassion for her point.

Scully writes 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."

The problem with Scully's attack on Whitman is that she does not take issue with the "guiding convictions" of other Republicans -- only with the zealotry with which they demand that others adopt their beliefs, when it comes to issues like abortion. Surely a "peculiar little orthodoxy" of moderation is better than one of zealotry.

Put another way, Whitman addresses political processes and style, more than political goals and policies. For example, Whitman is pro-choice - as, she points out, is the overwhelming majority of Americans. Yet the Republican pro-life zealots want to simply usher people like Whitman out of the Republican Party - to expel them rather than to try to convince them to change their minds, or to reach a compromise. Tactically, that is foolish. As a matter of style, it is boorish and rude.

The Left's Reactions To Whitman's Work

Whitman is being hit not only from the right, but from the left as well. For example, New Jersey journalist Steven Hart takes her to task in Salon (for which I have written).

Hart found Whitman's "tell-nothing" book "almost comically unconvincing," and "too drenched in speechwriter chloroform." He claims that "the "hard-liners who now control the GOP are laughing off Whitman's warning that they are alienating the majority of voters."

Nor is Hart impressed with Whitman herself: From his New Jerseyan's point of view, he comments that whereas "George W. Bush has famously credited his political success to being 'misunderestimated' by his opponents; Whitman has spent her career being misoverestimated by her supporters." Hart comments that "[t]he fact that 'moderate' Republicans like Whitman [are] willing to play loyal soldiers … leaves us with the question of what good they are to anyone."

It is a point well taken, and Whitman ought to address it: Why does her book fail to include any kind of manifesto, or guidance, for those Republican moderates who have had it with the zealots? She needs to offer a plan of action. It appears she realizes this, and has therefore launched a national effort to accompany her book.

The Difficulty of Organizing Moderates

Granted, Whitman is in an awkward position as a moderate. In today's bipolar political world, moderate officials are ready targets. In fact, given the polarization of contemporary politics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find moderates to seek public office.

A few years ago, Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, political thinkers, published their important work The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics. Halstead and Lind found that only about 30 percent of Americans considered themselves conservatives, and that about 20 percent thought of themselves as liberals.

Thus, fully half of Americans -- 50 percent -- fell in the center; they were, if anything, moderates. Moreover, these numbers have barely changed in the past five years. Moderates still dominate in our polls, if not in our politics.

The truth is that Americans are far less polarized than the red state/blue state distinction indicates. Anyone who takes the time to shift through the polls will discover most Americans are, in fact, moderates. Any survey of our nation's history will show that we have succeeded largely because of our centrist, and moderate, policies and politics.

Christie Whitman calls herself a "radical moderate." Halstead and Lind, too, once tried to motivate the radical center. But nothing much came of their effort. Whitman has established a website and an impressive advisory board: David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, former President Gerald R. Ford, former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, Amo Houghton, former Senator Alan Simpson, Candace L. Straight, and former Governor William Weld.

If Whitman -- as chair of her My Party Too organization -- can organize moderate members of her party into a voice and a force, she will accomplish much more than she has with her book. It did take courage to write this semi-autobiographical book, because the zealots she has targeted play nasty. But now, much more is needed.

The zealots controlling the GOP will not change their thinking soon, nor will they give up control easily. I disagree with those who read Whitman's book as a whine. I read it, instead, as a warning.

Unfortunately, it is a rather gentle warning - one that merely implies that moderate voters will not tolerate extremism in the GOP forever. I only wish Whitman would warn the zealots more sternly - and warn them, in particular, that she and other lifelong Republicans will leave the party if they do not pull back to the center.

To paraphrase a critique of Whitman in 1997, right now she is a "nowhere woman." Let us see where she goes - and let us hope she can lead the moderates of her party away from their current path. If they continue to walk with the zealots, they will eventually walk off a cliff.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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