Christine Whitman recalls her 1995 GOP State of the Union response

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman during a walk-through of her response to President Clinton's State of the Union Address, at the state Assembly chambers in Trenton, N.J.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Republicans accused of waging a “war on women” attempted to send a message to the nation with the selection of Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top woman in GOP leadership and a mother of three, to deliver the party’s response Tuesday night to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

The House GOP, though, will send another message just hours before the president visits the House chamber -- voting on a bill called the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act, which seeks to expand a prohibition on the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions.

The last and only other time the party asked a woman to stand alone to deliver the party’s official response, it was former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who is pro-choice, in 1995. In an interview, Whitman said the party “would never consider me” for such a high-profile speech today.


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“Those who control the levers today are more extreme than I am,” she said. “They’re far to the right of me and don’t consider me a Republican.”

The party’s selection of McMorris Rodgers was seen as an attempt to put a more family-friendly face on the GOP agenda at the start of the midterm election year. In a video previewing her address, McMorris Rodgers has talked about how her role as a mother shapes her work in Washington. Last week, the five-term lawmaker posted a picture of herself holding a speech draft in one hand and her 2-month-old daughter in the other.

“It doesn’t get much better than this!” she posted on the Instagram photo-sharing site.

The GOP’s struggles with women voters, though, were reinforced at last week’s Republican National Committee meeting, when it adopted a resolution to urge candidates to speak up on abortion. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee sparked a firestorm of criticism for saying Democrats want women to believe that women are helpless “without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido.”

Whitman said Huckabee’s remark, as well as Tuesday’s scheduled vote on anti-abortion legislation, reaffirms what people see as the party’s “condescending attitude toward women.”

“It’s hard for me to phrase this politely: Sometimes Republicans think that just putting a woman up front means somehow that women are going to feel good about the party,” Whitman said. “It is not about the messenger. It’s about the message. And until we figure that one out -- while it’s nice that we have a woman as a spokesperson -- if the message itself doesn’t get changed a bit, it’s not going to work.”


What follows is a Q&A with the former governor and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, about her recollections of her own State of the Union response speech and her view on the state of the GOP -- and Gov. Chris Christie -- today.

What do you remember about your response speech, preparing for it and delivering it?

It was a lot of negotiating back and forth between Washington and New Jersey. What they wanted said from the Republican leadership point of view, and the way I wanted to say things. So you go through a lot of negotiating back and forth to get it so that it was at a place where everybody’s comfortable.

And then of course, when I did it, it was the first time that we’d done it before a live audience. I did it in the [New Jersey] Assembly chamber. So I had people there, which gives it a different dynamic, which was great. My problem was that President Clinton, as he gave the address, I was standing there listening to it thinking, “He’s saying everything I’m going to say.” He was being a moderate Republican to the extreme. I got very nervous about just being redundant -- not that anyone listened to that speech anyway, frankly.

But fortunately for me he went on. And on. And on and on and on and on. So it went very long, and by the time he said something for everybody, I think they’d forgotten the first part of the speech. And I was able to get up, and I did ask -- because I was afraid of being rude to the president -- if it was all right if I said I wouldn’t ask for equal time. And I was assured that that wasn’t going to be rude. So I did, and that broke the ice, and everything was fine.”

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Having watched the speech again it was striking how you could give the same exact speech today. Maybe you’d just have to update the names of Republican governors you cited. What do you think you would say today, though, if you were giving the response for Republicans?

The key thing I believe for the Republican response is to have some positives. Not just to say what is wrong, and not to go back and dwell on the social issues. It would be focused on the fiscal issues. And talk about where successes have been that have shown that the approach that we want to take on lower taxes and controlling government spending have worked to the benefit of all people.

They have to be very careful -- the president’s going to go talking about what he can accomplish through, not fiat, but using the presidential powers. That’s a mixed bag for him because, first of all, he’s limited in how far he can get. Most of those can be challenged and will be challenged, particularly if you do things like get the Environmental Protection Agency to extend regulations on clean air and carbon, trying to get at the climate issue, which is something about which he cares and I do, too. But that’s the kind of thing that ends up in court.

Republicans should -- I’m sure they will -- raise the red flag about doing too much through executive order. But then they’ve got to be a little bit careful, because there’s so much gridlock. Everybody knows there’s gridlock. So there’s going to be a certain amount of sympathy when the president is saying I can’t get anything done with this Congress. So it’s going to be a fine line there.

The other thing is, he’s going to be -- again, it would appear from all of the quote, unquote, leaks -- that he is going to concentrate on unemployment and trying to narrow the income gap. Republicans have got to be pretty careful about ignoring that. I believe that what we’ve got to say is, we need to focus on this. There’s nothing more destroying to a person’s self worth and to society as a whole when an income gap gets to be too huge and you start to lose your middle class. But the way to solve that is not by bringing everybody down at the top end but bringing everybody up from below income average. Figuring out ways to support them, to give them training, to give them the kind of hope that they need to have, the dignity that they want to earn a living for themselves, and concentrate on them that way rather than talk about just giving more tax breaks to big business. You have to frame that in a way that says, we’re going to make sure that the benefits flow all the way down because we recognize that this is a problem.

That’s the message Republicans I believe need to get across -- recognize that there’s income disparity which has grown so much recently. It’s not healthy. But the way to do it is not to tear down the people who actually make money but to give everybody else the tools that they need to be able to make money, and the support they need, the help they need to get there.


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You touched on this a little bit already -- the challenge of having to deliver a response to the president of the United States. I’m writing that it sometimes has the feeling of watching a team celebrate a Super Bowl victory on the field and then going to hear from the losing coach in the opponent’s locker room.

That’s about it. You do get the sense that nobody much is listening. But you’re doing it for your party. It’s still a bit intimidating. You are on national television. You are responding to the president. You are the spokesperson for your party at that moment in time. And so it’s a bit intimidating. You want to do it right.

We’ve had some of these responses, shall we say, in the past where they were a little too casual. Hands in the pocket, kind of slouching around. You don’t want to do that. You do want to be a bit formal, because it is a formal thing. But you also have to recognize: Nobody much listens to it.

What it is really is the first shot for the party out of power in setting up for the next election cycle and what your issues are going to be. So it does have some resonance there over the long term. Not for what the coverage is going to be the next day. It’s all going to be about the president. Maybe you get a line .… But it’s going to be more about how you set up for the upcoming campaigns.”

So then what are we to read into the fact that there are now multiple responses? We have the tea party response, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is going to do one is well.


It’s pretty indicative of where the party is these days. It’s spread all over the place, and that’s a challenge. It’s a real problem. It’s not the unified response that back in the old days, as it were, at the time I gave it -- you didn’t have all that. Whoever was picked to do the response to the State of the Union really was laying out what the Republican, or the minority party platform was going to be going forward for that election cycle.

What do you read into the choice of McMorris Rodgers to deliver the official response?

It’s hard for me to phrase this politely. Sometimes Republicans think that just putting a woman up front means somehow that women are going to feel good about the party. It is not about the messenger. It’s about the message. And until we figure that one out, while it’s nice that we have a woman as a spokesperson, if the message itself doesn’t get changed a bit, it’s not going to work. But I think it is an attempt to say we’ve got prominent, articulate women, and she will certainly fill that role. And that’s great. But that’s not going to be enough to win over women at the polls.

What should Republicans be doing then to do that?

We should stop doing things like putting up another anti-abortion thing, and constantly trying to fight against the ability under the new healthcare law to provide birth control for women. If we really care about less government, let’s get them out of the bedroom. Let’s not say things like, “A woman’s libido needs to have government there to help control it.” That kind of thing just reaffirms a sort of condescending attitude toward women.

We’ve got to be better than that. We are better than that. We’ve got strong women in the party. We’ve got strong Republican women in Congress. We’ve got to show a little bit more respect for them. Let’s focus on the fiscal issues. Those are the ones about which people care the most. Healthcare -- it’s going forward, let’s figure out how we fix it and make it the best it can be. There’s obviously been glitches. There’s no big program that ever rolled out without having glitches. Chuck Robb and I just did an op-ed together on the need to, when you talk about fiscal issues, put aside partisanship and start to address some of the big issues like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. How do we solve those over the long term? Those are going to be tough decisions. But we’ve got to start making them. And let women talk about that, and stop talking down to people which is unfortunately, sometimes how our rhetoric comes across.


We originally expected this vote Wednesday but now it’s going to be Tuesday, on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Bill. Are Republicans teeing up an issue for the president by doing that?

To me it’s a disconnect. Do I know that there are women that are pro-life? Absolutely. Of course I know that. But for the majority of women this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s a very personal issue. Get off it. That’s not where people are. If you do the polls on what people care about when you go to the polls, abortion is a very small percentage of the voters, and they are the most single-issue people, who will go to the polls anyway no matter what, and vote Republicans no matter what, because the Democrats, they think, are just evil incarnate on this issue.

To get those in the middle which we lost so badly and we have been losing so badly over the years, get off it. Stop talking about it. You can hold your opinions. You can maybe run out those bills later on. But making them a center point is counterproductive if you want to win over those people in the middle.

Women tend to be moderates, because they have to balance so many things. Obviously we have extremes, of course. But in general, overall, that’s where the American people are, frankly. More in the middle than any place else.

Do you think you would be picked by the party for this address today?

No. They would never consider me. A lot of them don’t consider me a Republican. There are plenty who do. But those who control the levers today are more extreme than I am. They’re far to the right of me and don’t consider me a Republican. That’s not the majority of people who are or were Republicans and are now independents -- don’t want to be Democrats, but just are not comfortable with the party where it is today. But I don’t think they’d ever ask me.


Who do you see as Republicans who are doing things the right way in your view, either in the House, among the ranks of governors or senators?

I think [Maine Sen.] Susan Collins is doing a very good job. We’ve got good senators, from Alaska. We’ve got governors in John Kasich [of Ohio]. There are a number out there who are putting policy ahead of partisanship. Just look at the list of those who are involved with No Labels. There you’ll find, I think, some of the most thoughtful of our representatives on the Hill. Because they are the ones who are saying, look, we have got to get together on certain issues. We can hold principles and adhere to them. But that doesn’t mean that we lose the principle of compromise. The compromise of principle is different than the principle of compromise. And the principle of compromise is something that made this country, and did not involve compromising principles.

Is there anyone running in 2016 that you would consider supporting?

Right now, nope. It’s too early to pick. Too much happening.

Including in New Jersey.

Right. Including in our home state. We have to see how that one washes out in the end.

Do you think Gov. Christie has handled this well so far? Are you concerned about what you’re hearing?

Everybody’s concerned. He’s concerned. There’s no question about it. He’s not in a good place right now. I take him at his word when he said that he didn’t know anything about it. That’s troubling, because then people lied to him. As an executive, that’s the worst thing you can have in your team. So he has some tough days ahead of him. But I think he’s handling it as well as he possibly can.


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