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Issue No. 64 (March 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Christie Whitman’s It’s My Party Too:
reveille for “radical moderates”

Some political books are just meant to become moving targets. So when you’ve been EPA Administrator under George W. Bush (until you finally quit on principle) -- when you’ve been the first woman governor of New Jersey, one of our most troubled industrial states -- when you’re a moderate or liberal Republican in the year 2005 and proud of it -- and when you’re a thoroughly decent person, to boot, and a true grown-up in every good sense of that word -- then watch out. Every political bully in the country will come after you with their long knives.

The response to Christine Todd Whitman’s It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America (Penguin, 2005) may have been predictable, but it still has to be seen to be believed. Ann Coulter’s article “Christine Todd Witless,” in the Feb. 25 Human Events, is an appalling example of attack-dog conservatism (“Whitman . . . place[s] more value on Bambi’s life than the life of an unborn human baby”).

And Steven Hart’s 2,000 word leftist screed “The Moderate Who Wasn’t There,” in the Jan. 27 Salon, is even more appalling, because thoroughly dishonest: every major point he makes against her is addressed and rebutted in the book itself (unless you consider dorm-room-level speculation about her “pent-up patrician rage” to be a major point).

Gov. Whitman’s book deserves rescuing from its reviewers. Like Gov. Whitman herself, it’s a bit unique. It is not a kiss-and-tell along the lines of Ron Suskind’s book about Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty (2004) -- though you’ll certainly learn from it how one Bush Cabinet member feels as she’s increasingly shunned by the boys at the top. It is not a critique of the Bush Administration -- though you’ll find plenty of things here not to like (as well as to like) about the current regime.

It isn’t autobiography, though some of the most affecting passages concern Gov. Whitman’s girlhood and young adulthood in rural New Jersey. It isn’t exactly a policy book, though the strongest chapter exposes the lingering and narrowly self-serving hostility to market-based environmental solutions among Democrats and Republicans alike.

What Gov. Whitman’s book really is, I realized, is a model for how to think about our political issues and processes in the 21st century. It is earnest, open-minded, often bemused (especially at moments when other authors might be raging away), always clear, and gently feminist. She calls herself a “radical moderate,” and offers evidence to show there are a lot of us out there.

The “big umbrella”

Our goal, she urges, should be to create a political party that’s not so much a Big Tent (with its leveling and collectivist connotations) as a Big Umbrella. That was her GOP activist father’s vision -- “it more clearly suggests the importance of one strong central set of beliefs from which the various ribs radiate to hold up the entire party. Today’s Republican Party, however, seems more to me like a closed umbrella, with room underneath its canopy only for that rigid central shaft.”

The “shaft” she’s referring to is the beliefs and behaviors of the values conservatives, whom she insists on calling by the derogatory term “social fundamentalists.” She is not kind to them, and no wonder -- they’ve been after her and her political allies for three decades now.

In her critique of them, though, she underemphasizes that they’re onto a large truth: Unless you have a lot of cultural or economic resources, your kids are going to be eaten alive by the increasingly coarse “mainstream” culture. Most parents are helpless in the face of Hollywood and MTV and public school students who think studying is for nerds and sissies, and government can’t just stand aside and do nothing except prattle on about “diversity” (Democrats) or “personal responsibility” (Republicans). George Will’s post-liberal / post-conservative concept of a government duty-bound to engender moral not just economic growth (see esp. Statecraft as Soulcraft, orig. 1983) is highly relevant here.

You can empathize with Gov. Whitman for her frustration at the take-no-prisoners tactics of the values conservatives. But her animosity positively radiates from certain pages of this book, and therefore contributes to the polarized politics and lack of true dialogue she claims to lament. It is the one harsh note in this otherwise dulcet-toned book.

And it is not the dominant note. Reviewers have ignored -- but readers will not forget -- her gutsy chapter “A Woman in the Party,” which argues that politics desperately needs more women because they’re generally (a) less caught up in bombast than men, and (b) more practical than men.

Reviewers have also ignored what was clearly her most formative political experience once she left home: In the late 1960s, as a very young activist, she persuaded the chair of the Republican National Committee to send her “out into the country to listen to groups of youth, blacks, and seniors talk about what political issues were most important to them.” She called it the “Listening Program” -- three decades before Hillary Clinton’s famous “Listening Tour” of upstate New York (and 15 years before I publicized the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation’s innovative Listening Project in the Deep South) -- and says, “The insights I gleaned from that effort never left me.”

The key conclusion she reached: “[T]here is far more that unites us as a people than divides us.” A tent might be ghastly, but where is that umbrella?

The policies we’d carry

In Gov. Whitman’s book, the umbrella is no mere metaphor. It is the very picture of a new, “radical moderate” political philosophy. Woven in among the text are the “core values” that would serve as the umbrella’s shaft, along with an agenda whose policies would constitute the various ribs of the umbrella.

Here are the core values I found in the text:

-- smaller government;

-- fiscal responsibility and restraint;

-- strong national security.

And here are some key national policies:

-- line-item veto authority for the president (to eliminate pork-barrel spending by members of Congess);

-- environmental policies that “promote a balanced approach to environmental protection” and rely on market mechanisms wherever possible (e.g., caps on pollution coupled with pollution-trading rights for businesses, rather than detailed command-and-control regulation);

-- zero tolerance of racial profiling;

-- “reasonable and open discussion” of social issues;

-- “a foreign policy that is engaged with the rest of the world.”

When Gov. Whitman uses the term “radical moderate” (and it’s no throwaway -- her last chapter is entitled “A Time for Radical Moderates”), the word “moderate” is clearly meant to refer to the values and policies above. The word “radical” refers to the tactics she recommends.

Essentially, she wants moderates to adopt the passionate, 9 a.m.-to-midnight, bottom-up tactics of the values conservatives. “[We] must begin to organize at the local level,” she says, “involving like-minded moderates in the state and local party structures to ensure that the candidates the party nominates do not represent just the far fringes of the party but instead come from the heart of the party’s moderate middle. There’s no doubt that [we] have been outorganized, from the precinct level to the national stage, by the social fundamentalists.”

Unfortunately, Gov. Whitman’s policies may be too moderate -- or at least, too skimpy and unspecific at this point in time -- to engender the passions needed to lure thousands of activists into the trenches. A different definition of radical moderate may be needed, one that makes full use of the Listening Project concept.

It would require all good women and men to listen -- really listen -- to the various truths on display at every point on the political spectrum (from the Greens on the left all the way over to the dreaded values conservatives on the right). Then it would require us to USE those truths to cobble out holistic and integrative new solutions to the fundamental issues of our time: Universal health care based on government-subsidized private insurance. Energy independence based on carefully coordinated private/public investments. Affirmative action based on economic rather than racial or ethnic status. A financial nest egg for every young American. A draft that would give every young American a choice among military, homeland-security, or community service. And all the other solutions you can find in books like Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s Radical Center (2001), Matt Miller’s Two Percent Solution (2003), and my own Radical Middle (2004).

It would be churlish to fault Gov. Whitman -- a politician, after all -- for not offering a more robust set of “radical moderate” solutions. I prefer to think of her values and policies as a sort of guaranteed basic minimum, a rock on which a variety of more exuberant and ambitious radical moderate solutions could be built.

The poisonous attacks on Gov. Whitman's book by the far left and far right boil down to the assertion that it has nothing to contribute. In fact, it does something that neither political extreme has managed to do lately. It lays a firm, just, and thoroughly admirable foundation that all of us can build on in the years ahead.


Mark Satin, activist and attorney, edits the online Radical Middle Newsletter. His book Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now was published by Westview / Perseus in 2004.


Re: the subtitle of this article, "Reveille for 'Radical Moderates.'"  My younger readers may not be aware that Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer, once wrote a book called Reveille for Radicals.


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