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BONNIE ERBE Whitman falls short of a makeover



Published: Tue, January 25, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman's new book, due out this week, contains what her publishers hope will be seen as a series of stinging revelations. She writes that her Republican Party is being "dictated to by a coalition of ideological extremists." Would that were a stinging revelation. It would help sell more books.

Unfortunately, it's more of a yawn in today's universe of political somnolence. Either most Americans are sleepwalking through and into this rightward lurch, or Whitman should scorn more than a mere minority coalition of partisan ideological extremists for driving policy -- she should blame a whole nation of them.

"It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America," as Whitman's book is titled, reminds one of Tanya Melich's 1996 tome, "The Republican War Against Women."

Melich was a lifelong moderate, pro-choice Republican activist who deserted the party after the 1992 Republican convention spotlighting Pat Buchanan. Melich warned oh-so-many years ago that extreme right-wing elements would retain control of the GOP until Republicans suffered badly and repeatedly at the polls. Melich warned, nobody listened and here we are.

Whitman will warn, no one will listen and on we merrily will go. More than a decade hence, not just conservatives but right-wing extremists have gained seats in Congress and a stranglehold on power at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The saddest part is, there is nowhere for pro-environment, pro-business, pro-lower-taxes and pro-abortion-rights voters to go. The Democrats have become a sorry excuse for a national party. Self-anointed party leader Donna Brazile recently told The New York Times: "All these issues that put us into the extreme and not the mainstream really hurt us with the heartland of the country. ... Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies."

So managing a losing presidential campaign (Al Gore's in 2000) credentials her to shape party policy. How sad! It should be at least as difficult to join the elite club of partisan policymakers as it was for W. to get into Harvard and Yale -- that is to say, not very tough, but tough enough to make the club worth joining.

Credibility

Which is why it is so important for Whitman and other moderate Republicans to gain political clout and credibility. The former New Jersey governor may speak the gospel but she ain't no preacher. Right message, wrong messenger.

Whitman cost herself much credibility. When she left the Bush Cabinet, Whitman granted TV network after newspaper interview spouting the same duplicitous line: she was leaving for personal and family reasons. She denied she was being shoved out, or leaving because the Bush agenda so thoroughly clashed with mainstream Republican values.

Isn't now a little late for a lane change? Is she the partisan rebel she now paints herself to be, or the partisan disciple she played as chairwoman of the New Jersey Bush-Cheney campaign? Is she pro-Bush or con-Bush or something in between? She told many a journalist during the Republican convention in New York City last summer (including this one) that the GOP retains its inclusive, big-tent status.

So why should anyone believe her now that she admits she fit in like a flower child at an NRA convention?

Perhaps her book really is just about positioning herself to run again as a Republican in her blue home state, as many New Jersey pundits believe.

Bully for her, sorry stuff for the mainstream views she espouses. She's a Republican who supports abortion rights and stem-cell research, and favors clean air, clean water and open spaces. These are positions that not only defy current GOP dogma. They lie as pulse-less as war casualties in the no-man's-land between the front-line positions of evangelical Republicans battling Republican mainstreamers.

The mainstreamers need more champions. They need more credible heroes and heroines. Whitman not only blew her chance. She nuked it.

X Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.




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