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Compromise. How's that for a revolutionary concept?

It's My Party Too The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America Christine Todd Whitman Penguin: 248 pp., $24.95

February 20, 2005|Matthew Scully | Matthew Scully is the author of "Dominion" and, until recently, served as special assistant and deputy director of speechwriting for President Bush.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, as she tells us in "It's My Party Too," likes to think of herself as a Republican "radical moderate." No matter what the issue, no matter what the merits of any given argument, Whitman's radical moderate always knows that the truth lies "somewhere in the middle." In every debate, it falls to the radical moderate to survey the grubby quarrels of others and, with an air of dismay and disappointment, reproach all concerned for "the harsh tenor of our politics today."

Though radical moderates pride themselves, Whitman writes, on seeing "the nuances in issues," in fact every controversy becomes so much easier to deal with when all you have to do is split the difference. All disputes lead, in Whitman's book, to the same lofty conclusion: "[I]t's time for the American people to demand an end to the extreme approaches taken by those on all sides."

One downside of the radical moderate credo is that it does not make for stirring manifestos. The result in this case is a platitudinous, painfully high-minded book that manages somehow to be both cold and overwrought. More grating still is her plaintive tone from the title onward, as if Whitman, until recently a member of the Bush Cabinet, were some sort of forgotten outcast in her party.

She calls upon fellow radical moderates to rise up and reclaim "the party of Lincoln," to "assert forcefully and plainly that this is our party too, that we not only have a place, but a voice -- and not just a voice, but a vision ... true to the historic principles of our party and our nation, not one tied to an extremist agenda." As near as I can figure, this compelling vision we ignore at our peril comes down to the three "bedrock principles" Whitman rattles off here and there without elaboration: "less government, lower taxes, and strong national security."

These are fine principles, but they are hardly a fresh contribution to the debate. Nor do they quite warrant that tone of prophetic urgency in which she writes. The book's opening sentence ("We stand at a historic juncture in American politics ... ") and peroration ("By restoring a sense of purpose, of optimism, of hope, and of vision to our politics, we can repair what's broken") give a fair sampling of the airy blather in between.

The basic problem with the 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.

Most of the book is a brief against conservatives in her party -- and especially those religious types, "people I call social fundamentalists." She's had it with "their vitriol and the counterproductiveness of their zealotry" and worries that right-thinking moderates are being -- in the key phrase of the entire book -- "tarred by the same brush" as those people.

Some fair points could have been made here about the excesses of some, but making them would have required intellectual and moral engagement. For Whitman and the cliche-smith who assisted her, it's enough to strike the appropriate attitudes and supply the appropriate code words. Thus, we are cautioned at least 20 times against using "narrow litmus tests," then Whitman in passing declares that no judge who does not share her views on abortion should be confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Reasonable people might wonder whether this itself is a narrow litmus test. But we must keep such vitriolic and divisive thoughts to ourselves, lest we contribute to "the deterioration of what passes for political discussion these days."

Environmentalists, too, get the snooty treatment in Whitman's recollections of her three years as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was "the lonely moderate" once again, trying in vain to calm "both extremes of the environmental debate." As Whitman tells it, the Bush administration has more or less contracted out environmental policy to the relevant industries and trade groups. There is truth to this, and the experience at the EPA should have raised in Whitman's mind this question: Without the moral conviction she finds so off-putting among religious-minded conservatives, what would be left of the party of Lincoln but the crass corporate Republicanism she has witnessed for herself?

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