Former Gov. Whitman sees turning tide for Republican centrists

Christine Todd Whitman is “delighted” that some Republicans are abandoning Grover Norquist. 

She’s tough on Republicans who bashed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) for praising President Obama.

And she sees a growing recognition that the GOP is saddled with a primary system in which “a very small part of the party is controlling the outcome.”

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For the centrist Republican ex-New Jersey governor, years removed from politics and political miles away from the GOP’s hardcore conservatives, things are finally coming back around.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill, the former two-term governor who later led the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001-2003 reflected on her party and busy post-politics career.

“The things I have always loved about government and politics is it is hard to get bored because you can be all over the place, all sorts of different areas, and I like going up the learning curve,” Whitman said in late November. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Whitman wears many hats today — she’s active on energy, security and healthcare policy, and much more.

She is president of the Whitman Strategy Group, which helps companies and groups navigate environmental rules and boost sustainability — and not just in the U.S. Whitman advised on a major sustainable-city project in Korea.

Whitman also travels around the U.S. as co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy (CASE) Coalition, which seeks to build public support for construction of new nuclear power plants.

A few more of Whitman’s many affiliations: She is on the boards of the American Security Project, the Corporate Eco Forum, the Aspen Institute’s Health Stewardship Project, the Council on Foreign Relations and companies including Texas Instruments Inc.

It’s not all work, however. Whitman is happy she gets to spend time with her five grandchildren.

“The balance in life is nice,” she said.

Balance is something that for years Whitman has called missing in the GOP.

Her 2005 book, It’s My Party Too, lamented a party controlled by “extreme conservatives” on reproductive rights, the environment, gun control, taxes and more.

The book’s subtitle: “The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America.”

For years, it’s a battle Whitman and other centrists have fought from a defensive stance.

Republican centrists are increasingly rare in Congress amid the Tea Party ascendancy, the GOP-controlled House that has sought to dismantle environmental protections and, until recently, the party has shown a steadfast resistance to higher tax revenues in fiscal policy showdowns.

But Whitman, who is now in her mid-60s, sees signs of a turning tide.

“I am delighted to see now that, for instance, you have some of the leaders here saying, ‘Forget the pledge,’ ” Whitman said, referring to no-tax-increases pledge maintained by anti-tax crusader Norquist that most Republican lawmakers have signed.

Whitman is quick to point out her tax-cutting record as New Jersey governor and says federal spending is “out of control.” But she says tax revenues must be in the mix, too, in fiscal policy talks.

“I think it is a very good sign. People are finally saying, ‘We are going to have to negotiate,’ ” she said of some Republicans’ recent willingness to break the pledge. “It is pretty tough to negotiate when you are not willing to give up anything, when you can’t talk about what clearly needs to be part of the discussion.

“It does not mean you embrace taxes as the way to solve the problem. It just means you allow yourself some room for discussion of closing loopholes and that sort of thing,” Whitman said.

More broadly, Whitman said Romney’s loss among women, Latinos and African-Americans and young voters shows a party that needs to change.

“Unless you are living in a different world, you don’t see much of a future for the Republican Party. You cannot rely on 60-plus-year-old white men. It is not enough to win a general election,” she said.

Whitman sees disconnect between public sentiment and the political establishment, arguing that there’s dissatisfaction with both parties right now among a public hungry for discussion and leadership.

Whitman finds evidence of this disconnect in her home state. She took notice when Christie drew attacks from GOP insiders for praising Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy — which devastated the New Jersey coast — just days before the election.

“You had … the pundits here [in Washington, D.C.] and the talking heads within the party damning him. But the people in New Jersey, and the people you talk to around the country, they said, ‘That’s what we need,’ ” Whitman said.

“They didn’t see this as a repudiation of the Republican Party. They saw it as an executive doing what they elected him to do, which was govern the state and try and get it through a crisis,” she said.

While she isn’t claiming victory, Whitman sees a party ready to move back in her direction.

“There are some people who will never, ever accept moderation,” Whitman said, but adds that increasing numbers of Republicans are “starting to make the moves that give themselves the ability to reach consensus.”

Whitman is now calling for a more centrist GOP as a private citizen, but she also has battled in closer quarters.

She was to the left of the George W. Bush White House during her 2001-2003 stint as EPA administrator, notably backing limits on carbon dioxide, only to see Bush walk back his pledge on the matter.

On Capitol Hill in recent years, Republicans have blocked proposals for greenhouse gas limits and are seeking to scuttle EPA climate regulations.

But Whitman says the public is ready for more action on climate change. “If you get out of Washington, in the real world out there, people get it,” she said.