Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Redefining party lines

Christine Todd Whitman ’68 talks politics, presidential election during visit to Wheaton

Speaking to a political science class on Wednesday, former New Jersey governor and longtime Republican Christine Todd Whitman ’68 discussed the changing role of U.S. political parties, the need for bipartisan collaboration and the 2016 presidential election (and one especially polarizing candidate in particular).

Whitman, who also served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President George W. Bush, currently runs the Whitman Strategy Group, a team of environmental consultants. She was on campus to deliver a public lecture titled “The Politics of Environment” and took the time to meet with students in two classes—“Political Parties” and “American Political System,” both taught by Assistant Professor of Political Science Bradford Bishop.

Whitman began by explaining her own party leanings—as the child of two parents active in the Republican Party, she was immersed early on in politics, attending the Republican National Convention from the age of nine. As a young teen, she re-evaluated her position, ultimately deciding that she personally agreed with Republican politics, and not just because of her parents.

At the time, she said, the Republican platform was starkly different than today, with a focus on three key areas: fiscal discipline, a strong national defense and environmental protection. From her view, Democrats believed the way to get things done was from the top down; Republicans believed working from the bottom up was more productive.

“I kind of like the bottom up,” Whitman said. “I like the idea of respecting the individual, and you show that by letting them keep they money they earn.”

In those days, she said, both parties did not try to define their stance on every issue—instead allowing members to have differing views within the basic framework of the party platforms.

“The language you hear today is different,” Whitman said. “It’s, ‘If you don’t think the way I do, you’re the enemy.’ That makes it very difficult to reach a consensus.”

Whitman said she still sees the value of political parties, which provide structure, but that they need to step back and not define how individual members should vote on every issue.

“We have to take back our parties,” she said.

She pointed to two particularly contentious issues: abortion and climate change. The party view on both is currently very strict, but within each issue Whitman said there is room for compromise.

“With climate change, it’s about you either believe human beings cause climate change or you don’t,” she said.

This view severely limits the conversation, Whitman said, adding that a better approach would be to ask in what ways do humans affect the climate, and what can be done about it?

Alyssa Gilman ’16, a psychology major who is minoring in political science and Hispanic studies, said she was impressed by the former governor’s insights and how they showed a different kind of Republican Party than the strictly conservative one that has so often been “vilified and derided” in the media.

“It was nice to have someone present the opposing side and do it really well,” Gilman said. “It definitely made me and many others think and reflect on our own political beliefs, which is always a great learning experience.”

Admittedly, Gilman may be a little biased—she’s from New Jersey and, as she puts it, “the Jersey pride runs deep!” But she also appreciated Whitman’s “well-crafted” answers to a variety of student questions, from her thoughts on property taxes and land conservation to whether there is too much money in political campaigns.

On the subject of the 2016 presidential election, Whitman expressed concern over the ways candidates were exploiting the anger and frustration many Americans feel as the income gap grows and they have to work harder to stay in the same place.

“People are understandably open to suggestions,” she said. “It doesn’t make them evil people; it makes them desperate people.”

William Sweet ’17 found Whitman’s experience as head of the EPA especially interesting.

“As a biology major [and political science minor] who is passionate about environmental protection, it was encouraging to hear a politician talk about the role she has had in protecting our planet,” Sweet said. “Governor Whitman responded to each student question with in-depth answers that provided rationales for positions that she has taken or explanations of experiences in government.”

It was a conversation Whitman continued later that evening with a public talk in Hindle Auditorium. Sarah Hilton ’16, president of the Student Government Association, introduced Whitman as a “role model in using a Wheaton education to better the world around us.”

During the lecture, Whitman detailed why environmental protection is so vital, the political challenges of environmental regulation and the path for making progress.

“In 2013, in this country alone, 91,000 people died from bad air-related problems, such as heart disease, emphysema and other results of dirty air. That’s almost three times as many people as died from car accidents,” she said. “Think about the amount of time we spend trying to make our cars and our roads safer. We don’t talk about the environment the same way because we don’t always see it in the same light.”

While a vocal minority continue to question the reality and causes of climate change, Whitman said, the majority of Americans agree that the planet is warming, that humans have played a role in the change, and that we must change our behaviors to mitigate problems.

The fact that some people disagree strongly with these views does not mean the country cannot make progress, she said.

Whitman noted that the EPA was established in 1970 during the Nixon administration, amid a great deal of political and social turmoil, due to public demand for action by the government.

“That should be a real reminder to us that things aren’t going to change unless we demand it,” she said.

She urged students to speak up and demand that politicians work together to find common ground and take action.