Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator, has surveyed the results of the 2004 election. She does not like what she sees. There is a vast right-wing majority out there, and it threatens the electoral fortunes of the Republican party. She profoundly objects to “social fundamentalists” who have undermined “core Republican values” forming, in effect, “a party within the party…the tail wagging the dog.” She fears that these people “could even cause the party to lose its hold on the Congress and the White House before the end of this decade.”
This “far-right faction” is made up of many familiar conservatives: Richard Viguerie, James Dobson, the Club for Growth, and Americans for Tax Reform to name a few. Opponents of abortion and gay marriage are the primary focus of the governor’s unease. Moderates in the GOP “face a momentous choice. We can decide to continue to ‘go along to get along,’ to yield when push comes to shove to preserve the unity of the party and our place in it. Or we can elect to draw a line in the sand, to decide that the future of Republicanism is too important to allow those who seek to purge the party of anyone who is ‘ideologically impure’ to take over.”
This polemic goes on for the first three of seven chapters of It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America including negative commentary on conservative positions on stem-cell research and abstinence education. Three additional chapters focus on the politics of race, environmental policy, and women in politics. The concluding chapter is a clarion call “for Republican centrists to become radical moderates–people ready to fight for what they believe even if it makes some waives in the party. We have, quite frankly, been too willing to go along to get along, and that has weakened our ability to influence the direction of the party.” Here the focus is on local organization and activism, concluding with a recommended website, www.mypartytoo.com, to assist readers who “want to move American politics back towards the center….”
While Governor Whitman offers a compelling story on her family’s early involvement in New Jersey and national politics, her impressive quest to become the first woman governor of that state (and the first to unseat an incumbent), and her tenure at EPA, her central thesis is that the social issues define the battle between her view of radical moderation and social fundamentalism. A Rockefeller Republican, she aligns herself with Governors Schwarzenegger and Pataki who, between them, represent nearly one of every five Americans. Conservative on taxes, spending, and crime, they are moderate on environmental issues, liberal on social issues. It is an interesting question whether this makes one a moderate or more of a hybrid Republican.
With Republicans now in a stronger position in two out of three branches of the federal government, Whitman’s claim of dire political consequences resulting from the GOP’s embrace of traditional values and social conservatism is, at best, counterintuitive. Clearly, Whitman is motivated by strong personal convictions, rather than pure political expediency. I can testify to her honesty and overall integrity having worked with her at EPA for several years. Still, her social liberalism is as flawed politically as it is philosophically. It is hard to imagine the prototypical “Reagan Democrat” crossing party lines without the encouragement of the right-to-life movement or the NRA. These social conservatives are an organic part of the Reagan governing coalition that President Bush solidified with his reelection. Moreover, the increasingly Republican tilt of Catholic voters, especially those attending Mass regularly, argues for building on this base of social conservatism rather than alienating it. NR’s Kate O’Beirne has noted that in two-thirds of the battleground states, Catholicism is the dominant religion with Catholic voters in Ohio increasing their support for President Bush in this election from 50 to 55 points, winning 65 percent of those who attend weekly services. Interestingly, Bush went up from 51 to 58 in New Jersey!
Moderate or liberal Republicans like Governors Whitman, Schwarzenegger, and Pataki are making great contributions to the GOP, their states, and the nation. It is better that they occupy their respective statehouses than any liberal Democrat. However, a national party must reflect a national consensus, not just on economics, crime, or foreign policy, but on those fundamental issues upon which the health of families and, ultimately, society rest. For this reason the Republican party will remain the favored home of social conservatives of all stripes.
–G. Tracy Mehan III was assistant administrator for water at the EPA from 2001-2003. He is a consultant in Arlington, Va.