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Former NJ governor on politics
Christine Todd Whitman talks to the Hippo

10/20/11



Former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman spent last Thursday, Oct. 13, in New Hampshire for a number of events, including a forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics taking on the question of what is wrong with Washington, D.C. Whitman, New Jersey’s first female governor, was governor from 1994 to 2001. She took over as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, serving through 2003, under President George W. Bush. Whitman is the co-chairwoman of the Republican Leadership Council. She wrote the best-selling book It’s My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America.

Q:

What brings you here to New Hampshire?

I’m spending the day talking about what we need to do ... to get our political process back on track. To heighten awareness that we care about the dysfunction in Washington and to understand that there are things that we can do about it, personally, and that we should.

Where should we start?

...Start at the voting booth. I look at the Wall Street protesters...around the country... — I understand their anger, their frustration, their fear... — but I will bet you...less than half of them voted in the last election cycle. ...We just don’t vote in this country. That’s where you start to make the changes...To want to take down Wall Street or big business is not going to solve our problems. ...We need to look at our tax structure, we need to look at our regulatory structure. We don’t throw those things out but we need to have a discussion about it and improve them where we can... But it starts with...voting and getting engaged with the candidates...

How do we get more people engaged...?

First we have to make them feel less disenfranchised. That comes down to things like campaign finance reform so you don’t see the big money...controlling the process ... Each state determines how they do redistricting. … And we’ve got to get redistricting back to a place where it’s not all about the incumbent. ..The more we draw safe districts...the more we take away an incentive to work with anybody from the other party. And we don’t have term limits, and I don’t think they’re a bad idea either... ...It becomes a job for life... ...That means you don’t have to worry about the general [election] ... you have to worry about the primary. The only place you tend to get attacked in the primary is...from the right and...from the left. So you keep moving...to the extremes because...fewer people are voting and the ones who do vote are the most energized and they tend to...have one or two issues in which they care. So then you end up with candidates who represent fringes ...the average voter doesn’t believe in. So they don’t vote. ...

[Whitman touched on Americans Elect.]

There is a new process going on...called Americans Elect. … It’s an Internet convention. The purpose is to elect a president, not a party. Any registered voter can go on the site, www.americanselect.com, become a delegate...nominate anyone who meets the constitutional requirements and has had some executive experience in the private or public sector. ...They’re going to have a convention in June and it has to be a bipartisan ticket. ...They will be on the ballot in every state in November 2012. ... I’m told they went up on Facebook, 17,000 to 280,000 ... likes. ... And they ask voters ... what do you think are the most important issues? ...Then...for instance in health care, “Do you think it should be single-payer, do you think it should be government run” — whatever. … They’ll take the...top issues and they’ll go to experts in...health care, education, economy, and...say “What questions should we be asking the presidential nominee about these issues?” And then everyone who has been nominated will be asked to answer those questions on the Internet. .... They have to face the people. ...Then the people...vote. …A Republican candidate has to pick a Democrat or a registered independent as their running mate.

That’s pretty interesting.

… It’s trying to break the gridlock in Washington. ... Whether it works or not in the way they intend it, I don’t know. But for those people who refuse to vote in a primary because they don’t believe in the party... [New Hampshire independent voters can vote in primaries but many states don’t allow that. Whitman said people often don’t know what they have to do to be eligible to vote in primaries.] So for those people who are registered independents but can’t vote in the primary... this is a way to say there are no excuses. ...

From a Republican perspective, are you happy with the candidate field?

...We certainly have a wide choice. ...That’s healthy and that’s good. There are obviously candidates there who have a great deal of experience and executive experience, which I tend to think is important. What frustrates me is that the way the system is set up, it’s...forcing...candidates to sign these pledges that they know they can’t implement if they’re going to govern rationally. ... Mitt Romney’s smarter than to sign a no new taxes pledge. He knows he’s either got to break that pledge or he’s giving up his ability...the Taxpayers Protection Pledge, you can’t even close loopholes... The latest poll I saw ... over 70 percent of Republican voters thought there were going to have to be some tax increases. … You don’t want to raise taxes... ...In order to win in the Republican primary, you feel you’ve got to...sign these things. A pledge that says...you’d support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — I don’t care what you think about gay marriage, but that’s not how you use the Constitution and there are many more important things for the president to be worried about.

[Whitman says the current primary system pushes candidates to the extremes.]

...I think it makes it harder for our candidates to win a general election. I really don’t think the American people as a whole are supportive of the more extreme positions. While it’s traditional that in primaries Republicans ran to the right and Democrats to the left, and then they competed for the center, now...all you go for is your base. If I can excite my base more than you can excite your base, I win. And the base is increasingly smaller but it’s passionate about issues that tend not to be the ones the average person worries about... ...I...say...“When was the last time you woke up and...said...‘Oh my God, a gay couple moved in next door.’?” That’s not what you talk about at the breakfast table. You talk about: Are my kids getting a good education? Can I keep the roof over my head? What’s going to happen with my medical bills? If you have older parents, are you going to be able to care for them? If you have children, are they going to be able to have a better life than I have? ... And yet, what gets people to the polls, unfortunately, has tended to be these social issues that are more on the fringe. Important, you can feel passionate about these things...but we need our candidates to speak to broader issues...

That move to having all these pledges, is that something you’re seeing more of now?

There are about eight of them now, major ones. ... I refused to sign the no new taxes pledge when I ran for governor. … I reduced taxes over 45 times, left the state with the largest surplus it ever had, and a balanced budget, $1 billion surplus, kept state spending the lowest, in the first term, it had been in decades, and in the second term too, kept spending below the rate of inflation, yet I could never get those Republican groups to endorse me because I wouldn’t sign their pledge. And you look at them and you say, “What are you really about? … Because if you want the economic issues, here’s a record that’s right in sync with what you want, but I can’t in good conscience say I would never, ever raise a tax. Because if I can close one loophole that would make the tax structure more equitable, I should do that.

Sounds like these candidates could be setting themselves up for failure...

We saw what happened this summer in the debate over the deficit reduction bill. ...The rest of the world looks at us and says, “What is wrong with the United States? ...” That was held up because people signed the pledge and said we’re not going to break it. Now I admire their adhering to a promise...but I just don’t see how you govern well when you start giving up tools like that… ...I think it worked to our detriment, frankly, in the budget debate. There were some concessions...that John Boehner was getting...that would have been good...

Is [EPA] an appropriate place for candidates to be pointing their anger?

There are lots of things that EPA does that engender anger, always has, always will. Any time you promulgate a regulation on the environment, you’re causing somebody to spend money or change behavior for a problem they may not think exists or doesn’t affect them. So it’s always going to be controversial. The thing that bothers me particularly is this wholesale “We need to get rid of all regulation.” Now, the [EPA] is...about the last time you saw real bipartisan work being done. Because in the 1960s, our country is being torn apart... We had rivers that were spontaneously combusting, people who were dying every summer because of bad air quality and being hospitalized, and the people demanded...action, and...Republicans and Democrats, got together, and it was Richard Nixon in 1970 who established the [EPA].  … The Agency was established and enforcing these laws, and our economy was gangbusters. ... Environmental regulations don’t have to stop economic growth. In fact, they can help economic growth. However, there are certainly instances when the Agency has overreached. There are certainly times when it intercedes. … Look at all regulatory bodies, that’s what they do. … There’s no problem with saying you have to have reform. … We’d be well-advised to remember why the agency was established.... And our air is cleaner today, our water is pure and land is better protected for having the Agency... ... So we can and must have the two things — economic growth and a clean and healthy environment...

When candidates talk about the economy and job creation, are they doing it in the right way?

… I haven’t read Mitt Romney’s 78-point plan. ...What I’ve seen of it, it has more substance than the 9-9-9 plan from Herman Cain. The problem I have with that is a ... value-added tax hits you every step of the production line...that’s reducing the tax load on the wealthiest ... but increasing the tax load on middle and lower income because they’re going to pay it every time they go to the grocery store or get clothing... … Certainly...cutting taxes helped stimulate business in our state and make us more economically competitive, but you can’t do that in a vacuum. You’ve got to control spending. ...

[Whitman says there cannot be any sacred cows if lawmakers are going to tackle the country’s financial woes.]

If we can’t talk about Social Security, or Medicaid, Medicare and Defense...we’re not going to solve the problems. That’s the harsh reality. I think most Americans understand that. ...Deep down, they know you have to. It’s a question of balance. The worst thing in the world would be...the super committee ... does not come up with a solution, which I don’t think they will. I hope I’m wrong. … And then the automatic cuts go into effect. Because those cuts are huge on Defense. Now Defense can cut...but they’re already dealing with $300 million in cuts and they’re going to have to do another $300 million. If the automatic cuts go through, you’ll be up to a billion dollars. … You don’t want to do that. You don’t want the across-the-board... You want to be able to ...take a little more here and a little less there, in order to have the right...policy mix. … Fifty percent of children born today are projected to live to 100. It doesn’t make any sense to have Social Security kick in at 67 or 65 for them. It’s not a question of going after benefits that current retirees depend on. ...Most people around 40 don’t think there will be Social Security anyway, so if you tell them wait to 68, 69 or 70, well, at least that may save the system. ...

[Whitman touched on Obamacare as well, with a focus on reform, rather than repeal.]

...Obamacare...Republicans say...we’re going to do away with it. They’re not going to do away with it. They’re not going to control both houses of Congress to the degree, even if they win the presidency, that they can just do away with it. ...Most of the American people realized we needed to have some reform... ... This is far from a perfect system. And there are real reforms that need to happen. They took no costs out of the system. In fact they increased costs. You have to go after tort reform.... ...That’s what we should be talking about: how we’ll make this system work. …

The primary schedule has become all messed up.... Now we’re asking people to possibly vote a year in advance....


They’re looking and saying this is ridiculous. This is parties and states just playing this game. You talk to people and they just shake their heads. ...Frankly the non-incumbent party ... I don’t think you want this. Because you are having one heck of an expensive, brutal, long, drawn-out campaign. ...We’d be far better served...if we had shorter campaigns. If we had some public financing so there was some limit to how much money somebody could spend. And make people take it or say this is how we’re going to make a determination on whether I vote for you or not, whether you’ll agree to take public financing. Because, at least in our state we have it for the gubernatorial, it puts a lid on how much you can raise and how much you can spend. But this...the incumbent has a long opportunity to just beat the heck out of the candidates.

Looking at the entire primary system, is that a good system to have the same states first each time?

I’d rather see regional primaries. I think that makes more sense. ...It means the candidates have to go to every part of the county and speak to all the issues. With all due respect to New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina ... those tend to be more conservative states.... It skewers it. It can create a momentum that can give you a candidate that is going to be much more challenged in the general election because of the issues they talk about to those primary voters. So if you had regional primaries ... they’re going to have to talk about all the issues. And they’re going to have to talk about them in ways that are not easy to dodge .... And it means that every region ... will actually get to hear their issues discussed...

Have you chosen a candidate to support at this point?

I haven’t at this point. The candidate that I think has the kind of background and ability that I’d like to see is Jon Huntsman. But he’s just not catching any fire. He’s too centrist to make it through the process... ...I campaigned for Mitt Romney when he ran for Senate and...for governor and I certainly appreciate his executive experience and ability — he did a heck of a job with the Olympics. I’m troubled by all the pledges he’s signed. That bothers me as to where he’s going to draw the line.... But I certainly think he’s...capable...of running the country.

Is there room for a serious independent candidate?

That’s what Americans Elect would be. They don’t want to be a third party. They just want to be an alternative. ... That’s why it’s a bipartisan ticket. I would support that over a third party effort. ... The beauty of Americans Elect is that you don’t leave the Republican party or the Democratic party. ...

—Jeff Mucciarone






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