By Joe Petrizzo
A mere two hours before the beginning of the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) delivered a review of the two major political parties at the latest event hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics as part of its Governing New Jersey series.
The two-term governor, who served from 1994 to 2001, expressed her strong dislike for the way Democrats and Republicans have been conducting business lately. She is dissatisfied with the “parliamentary democracy” that she believes America is moving ever closer to. Whitman explained that in a parliamentary democracy – which, according to her, is an oxymoron – the political parties are everything. They decide which candidates run for which offices, which issues are discussed, threaten to replace those who do not pass a litmus test and cater to a narrow-core philosophy. This has caused a rift down the center of the aisle with conservatives on right, liberals on the left and moderates occupying increasingly fewer seats in the middle.
Whitman predicted the ostracizing of moderates back in 2002, when an unnamed Maine Republican senator was up for reelection in the traditionally democratic state. The Maine senator feared being reprimanded by her party and losing their support in the upcoming election, so she voted for a bill that she did not support. In her 2005 The New York Times bestselling book “It’s My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America,” Whitman recounts her experiences dealing with far-right conservative “social fundamentalists” and calls for her party to return to the traditional Republican principles of unobtrusive government and environmental protection, among others.
“I find very little satisfaction in saying ‘I told you so,’”Whitman said.
She went on to say that politicians must stop with the mentality that “you’re not good because you cosponsored a bill with a member of the other party.”
Whitman claims that the amount of legislation being passed in Congress has stagnated because of the tension between the political parties. Using the issue of illegal immigration to exemplify her point, the former governor noted that answers to the problem do exist and are just not being acted upon.
“There are solutions, but no one has the appetite for them,” she said. “That’s just plain wrong when real people are being hurt.”
Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Myra Gutin agreed with the main points Gov. Whitman made in an email.
“I thought Governor Whitman was dead-on when she spoke about the fact that neither party wants to compromise and the word ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word,” Gutin said. “She understands that the lack of cooperation is at the heart of congressional gridlock.”
The former governor also expressed her concerns over how the current state of American politics will affect mainstream American voters in the upcoming presidential election. She fears that many Americans will simply stay home and not vote because of a lack of enthusiasm and uncertainty created by the fringe factions of each political party, something she finds troubling.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,”she said, repeating an oft-quoted phrase. Whitman remembers an important lesson her father taught her: “If you do not participate, you lose the right to complain.”
Whitman mentioned the low voter turnout rates over the past few years as a sign that all is not well. According to her, only 10 percent of registered voters go to the polls in primary elections, 30 percent in midterm elections and slightly over 50 percent in presidential elections. This means that most people “either don’t care or believe [the incumbents] are doing a good job.” She says that what these low turnout numbers mean for both political parties is that voters are placing “a pox on both your houses” channeling Mercutio’s dying words from “Romeo and Juliet.”
Her solution to the divide that plagues the nation is to encourage voters to push back and push back hard.
“As the electorate, we should be standing up and saying ‘enough,’” Whitman said.
Gutin has similiar feelings to Gov. Whitman when it comes to voting.
“I completely agree with Whitman about voting,” Gutin said. “It is a disgrace that just over 50 percent of registered voters in this country will cast their vote for president. For most of us, it isn’t hard to vote — those who do not vote have no right to complain.”
According to the governor, even the founding fathers had different opinions but were able to work through them to create “something bigger than themselves.”
“They gave us the extraordinary document — the Constitution,” she said.
Gov. Whitman also stressed the importance of making the upcoming election about the issues that matter, like social security and the national deficit and not fabricated issues like Obama eating dog meat when he was a child in Indonesia or Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of the family vehicle.
When asked by an undecided voter for advice on how she could not “throw her vote away,” Whitman responded that in today’s technologically advanced world, information is all around us and that a little effort is all it takes to find the information needed to make an informed decision. She also suggested that watching the debates would be helpful.
“Are they addressing the problems that are important to you?” she said. “I wouldn’t vote for the party, but for the person.”
Whitman attempted to alleviate some of the problems voters may have when she served on the Board of Directors for Americans Elect, a non-profit organization that intended to nominate a presidential candidate from one of the major parties and a vice presidential candidate from the other. The entire process was to take place online, where participants or delegates would vote for a nominee. Ultimately, none of the candidates met the necessary criteria and Americans Elect failed to put a nominee on the ballot.
The event was a huge success according to an email sent out to faculty by Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. The email noted that it was standing-room only. The presentation was popular with students as well, such as senior public relations major Ben Smith.
“It was great that she left so much time to answer students’ questions,” Smith said. “When the topic shifted to the presidential election, she spoke objectively of both candidates and really stressed the importance of promoting better bipartisan relations.