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United States

'Republican Party not the party I grew up with'

Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, talks to DW about her frustration with her party and Germany’s environmental record.

DW: What was your first thought when you heard Mitt Romney's remark that President Obama won the election mainly because he handed out gifts to key Democratic voter groups?

Christine Todd Whitman: I was enormously disappointed in that. Again it goes along with the 47 percent remark (Romney's campaign remark that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income taxes - the ed.) that he made earlier that I had hopefully dismissed as being the kind of thing that every once in a while you say something that really comes out the wrong way. But when you start following it up by comments like that, that makes you think maybe he was serious and really believed that a high number of the American people were on welfare because they wanted somehow to be there. And that's just not the case.

It was disappointing and it was not helpful to the party as a whole going forward to have that kind of an image of this is what we think and this is the party we are because if you look at the demographics of this country it's changing and we are going to be left on the outside as a party, consigned to irrelevance if we don't start to reach out to those groups that have traditionally been ours. Hispanics and others share many of the values of the Republican Party and should be with us. But we lost them and it's the same thing with women.

Back in 2005 in your book "It's My Party, Too" you criticized the shift to the right and the divisive politics of your party. Seven years later after a Republican presidential primary that was primarily a competition in extremism and with the last moderate Republicans leaving Congress early next year can you today still claim that the current Republican Party is your party?

It's certainly not the party in which I grew up. And it's not how I describe my Republican Party. The values that I had and that were instilled in me are not what I would have seen today.

For instance, one of the things that is driving me nuts right now is this criticism of our current governor here in New Jersey, Chris Christie, for his response to the president when the president came in after the super storm Sandy. People are trying to say that it was because he embraced the president that Mitt Romney lost the election rather than taking a look at where we stood on the issues and how that alienated women and minorities. Instead they try to blame it on someone who was actually doing something that he was elected to do which was govern. We had a crisis. The president is the one who has the ability to help us through this crisis and by recognizing that he was there for us when we needed him, Chris Christie, was doing exactly what he should have done as a governor.

Most Republican office holders in Washington and across the country were elected on ultra-conservative platforms and for instance signed Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances which makes a move to the political center practically impossible. Under these conditions how and with whom at the helm do you expect your party to shift to the center?

What you can hope for is that cooler heads will prevail. And that people will take a good hard look at the lessons from this election and recognize that just by looking at the basic demographics we can't go on the way we are going and constantly go looking for people with whom we won't associate if we want to be a relevant party in the future.

There were over three million more self-identified conservative voters who voted in this election than voted four years ago for John McCain. And he brought out 2.5 million more of those self-identified conservative Christian voters than had voted for George Bush in his reelection. So the base is coming out. But the base isn't enough. We are getting all those social conservatives, but they are not enough to win nationwide. And people have to sit back and look at that lesson and ask where do we go from here. How do we stay relevant? And one of the conclusions that they will inevitably come to is that we have to start reaching out more. And you are already seeing some of that discussion going on. You are already seeing some people backing away from the pledge that you mentioned, saying that this doesn't make any sense to lock yourself in this kind of a position, before you have a chance to analyze all the issues. And it's that kind of an approach that I hope will prevail.

Let's switch gears. What first comes to your mind when you think of Germany today?

A country that has been rescuing Europe for a while now. And a country that has shown an extraordinary ability to redevelop itself and that has actually been leading the way in trying to impose some economic sanity within the other countries of the European Union.

Another issue that Germany is also associated with is as an environmental leader. Do you consider Germany an environmental leader globally?

They certainly have been, yes. It's a country that has been very committed to those ideals.

While climate change is widely accepted in Germany and Europe, according to a recent Pew poll only 48 percent of Republicans believe that there is solid evidence for it. To be sure that number increased from last year, but it still means that most Republicans are not convinced that climate change is real. What does this tell us about your party's commitment to protect the environment?

It makes it very problematic. And I worry about it. That's the kind of statistic that bothers me greatly.

But I also have to say that I am very interested in watching how Germany deals with the fact that you have been active and long-time supporters of Kyoto and yet by walking away from all nuclear power, the power that is going to have to be used instead to keep the economy growing is going to be much dirtier and much more expensive. And while Germany is doing a wonderful job on its movement toward solar power it still needs to have base power as a back up. And so in every place you have these challenges where there's not a straight, clear and clean answer always.

But the Republican statistic bothers me. And I do not believe that the majority of people who would be Republicans if they didn't think the party was too extreme are the ones who are saying that climate change isn't happening. We are now getting to a point where it's pretty hard to deny it. We have had here in the state of New Jersey two 100-year storms in four months. While no credible scientist will attribute any individual storm to climate change they certainly have said and will continue to say that what you can expect from a warming climate is that you will have ever increasing severe storms.

Back in 2008 President Obama vowed to make the US the leader in green technology to be able to compete with countries like Germany, but his environmental record has been mixed at best. Just this week the CIA announced it had closed its Center on Climate Change and National Security which had been criticized by Republicans. What signal does that send and how convinced are you of President Obama's commitment to protect the environment?

I have been disappointed with the lack of action. The problem is that very early on the administration I believe overreached on climate change in particular. They tried a parliamentary approach if you will to getting something done in a backdoor way that scared away a lot of people who would have otherwise been supportive of it on the Republican side of the isle. And by that overreach they undermined their ability to get things done and they paid too high a price so that slowed everything down. But I have been disappointed that we haven't seen more action. I am hopeful that in this new Congress, the president having been reelected will step up and reaffirm his commitment. Because it's going to take leadership from the top to get people to really address the issue.

A major energy and environmental issue in the US is fracking, a highly controversial practice to extract oil and gas. Energy companies hail it as the path to make the US energy independent and turn it into a major energy export country, while environmental and citizen groups say it is toxic for the environment and want to ban it. The EPA is currently conducting a study on the issue. What's your stance on fracking?

Fracking is a technology that has been used for a long time in many places and done relatively safely. First, it's not as much the fracking necessarily as what you do with the waste water that's the most problematic part of the fracking process that could cause the most trouble. And second, there are places where it is appropriate to do it and places where it isn't. If you are in a position where you might endanger the water supply to literally tens of thousands of people, I wouldn't do it. That's just not the first place I would go because the cost of remediation should you in fact end up somehow polluting that water is far greater than what you will get from the extraction of being so called energy independent. There are things where we can take advantage of the natural resources we have, but it needs to be done in a very careful way.

Christine Todd Whitman served as the first female governor of New Jersey from 1994 until 2001. She then led the US Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush from 2001 until her resignation in 2003 over demands by Vice President Dick Cheney to loosen air pollution rules. Whitman, a leading voice for a more centrist Republican Party, is the author of the 2005 book "It's My Party, Too: Taking Back the Republican Party And Bringing the Country Together Again."

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