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Week of 9.5.08

Transcript: 2008: A Republican Reinvention?

BRANCACCIO: Senator McCain and Governor Palin are casting themselves as mavericks ready to fix government and even the Republican Party itself. But what kind of improvements could be made to the GOP? One idea heard repeatedly from the convention podium this week is to embrace moderates and independents. Ironically, these appeals were often sandwiched between layers of rhetorical red meat for the party's most conservative base and the fact is, many moderate republicans do *not* feel welcome. That's what Christine Todd Whitman told me at the convention this week. Whitman was once the republican governor of New Jersey and George Bush's head of the environmental protection agency.

Christine Todd Whitman, thanks for joining us.

WHITMAN: It's a pleasure. Delighted to be here.

BRANCACCIO: Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, chosen to be John McCain's number two now. On paper, she doesn't seem to be your kind of Republican. She's pretty darn conservative. What do you make of that pick?

WHITMAN: Well, I probably wouldn't agree on almost any social issue, but she doesn't agree with John McCain on every issue either. I look on this as John McCain saying, "I want someone who's—I want to show that I'm gonna shake up the system." I'm delighted that we have a woman. You have a minority man leading one ticket, and you have a woman on the other ticket. This is big news for the United States. And it's good. And you should judge her as you would any other candidate. But just the fact that—that there's a woman on the ticket, I think, is—is a good and healthy thing.

And—and she—he has decided that she is the one who, she certainly has injected youth and an enthusiasm that I've been blown away by. The amount of fundraising over the internet, since she was announced, has been extraordinary. So, clearly, she struck a chord.

And that's what he was looking for. And saying, you know, "I'm gonna be the president. This is my vice president." I'm confident in her from what I know of her. We have been, over this week, learning more about her. And people are gonna have to make their own judgments at the end of the day. But, obviously, she has struck a very strong chord.

BRANCACCIO: Well, one thing you do know about Governor Palin is that you probably wouldn't agree with her much on environmental issues. Many issues near and dear to your heart.

WHITMAN: Well, people say that, and—and certainly I disagree with her on something like climate change. I do believe it is—an important issue. And we need to start addressing it today. But somebody asked me the other day about, "Well, she's—different than you on—on offshore drilling." And I said, "Wait a minute—you know, we are the only industrialized nation in the world that is not using all of our natural resources."

Now there are appropriate places to drill and inappropriate places to drill. But if we're gonna see a 25 percent increase in electricity demand by 2030, we've gotta stop saying no to everything. We have got to understand that we're gonna have a mix of energy. We can do more nuclear. And there's a whole group saying, "No, no, no, we'll never touch nuclear." We talk about oil and drilling. "No, no, no, you can't drill." You can't—you can't go anywhere with that. Nobody wants a liquefied natural gas pipeline anywhere near them. That—that might be problematic and bad. We keep saying no. Even to things like windmills. Wind power. Bobby Kennedy Junior didn't want that wind farm off Nantucket.

Yes, we can do better on conservation, yes, we need to do better on renewable resources. But we're still going to need the regular base power sources. We're gonna have to do some drilling. I don't happen to think that Alaska is necess—is the place to do it. But understand that we can now, you can drill, you go down vertically, and then you can go horizontally five miles. And so you're not disturbing—the same things you were before.

You can be much more environmentally sensitive on a lot of these things. And we need to look at those. So I am not sure how far apart Sarah Palin and I would be on, on a host of issues.

BRANCACCIO: And I have to ask, I mean, do you think she's ready for that
role? I saw some actuary figures. John McCain seems like a healthy guy. But a guy his age, you know, things can happen over eight years. Sarah Palin could become president at some point. Do you think she's ready?

WHITMAN: That's something I think the American people are gonna have to take a good hard look at. And see whether they're confident with it. Certainly John McCain feels—that she has what it takes. There's a lot to leadership beyond holding an office. Although that—that helps. And it's good to have had that experience. I think that's something that all of us are—are looking at. And will be deciding on as—as we move forward.

BRANCACCIO: Give me a sense what you've been focusing your attention on during this election cycle.

WHITMAN: Everybody is so focused on the presidential. Clearly, this is an election unlike any that we've seen in our history. And a very exciting one. And bringing new faces to the fore. And—there's a lot at stake in the House and the Senate. But people often forget that in the state houses, in the legislatures and in their towns, there are gonna be elections that are every bit as important to their every day lives.

And so what I've been focusing on with the Republican Leadership Council, is—with Jack Danforth, who is the co-chair there, we really focus on state and local races. And—that's where we've been putting a lot of our emphasis. To remind people to the important issues.

BRANCACCIO: Who's the perfect candidate that you would like to invest some of your time in helping to get elected?

WHITMAN: Well, we have—we do have a litmus test, much as I hate them. But our litmus test is do you agree with the basic Republican principles? Of respect for the individual, as evidenced by less interference in our every day lives. And understanding that people deserve to keep more of what they earn. So you keep taxes low, but you don't do that in a vacuum. You have to keep spending down and balance budgets. An engaged foreign policy, strong national defense, a recognized shared responsibility to our environment. And that's it. And not try to have litmus test positions on every social issue you can think of.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's a shame you have to ask.

WHITMAN: I know. I know. But this is—and—and we also—the other thing we ask is do you think—are you willing to work with members of the other party, if it means getting something done for your constituents. But, you know, if you watch Washington work, as you have over the last few years, these are questions you have to ask nowadays. Because there's this idea that, somehow, it's a sin to compromise. That means you don't have any—any moral positions. Any real grounding. That it is—it is disloyal to work with, if you're a Republican, with Democrats to get something done. And that's just wrong thinking, in our minds. And so we're looking for those people who feel the same way. And then we'd like to support them.

BRANCACCIO: And by the way, not a sin, apparently, in Washington, to spend like mad, regardless of the party.

WHITMAN: Exactly. I mean, it used to be that Republicans stood for balanced budgets. We stood for—controlled spending. And we seemed to have forgotten a lot of that. I mean, the Democrats have, as well. But that was expected of them. Not of us, so much.

BRANCACCIO: So I'm originally from state of Maine. I guess you were up in my home state.

WHITMAN: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: Helping someone who passed the litmus test. Who—who have you been helping up there?

WHITMAN: We've been helping a number of candidates in Maine. Maine, Michigan, Iowa, California and Connecticut are five of the states that we'll really be concentrating on this year. And—what we're doing, in—in Maine, I was working for a congressional candidate. But—what we really concentrate on is those states where we've lost—Republicans lost the legislature in the last cycle.

You know, it's very interesting. In the last election cycle, Republicans lost nine state legislatures. That's a huge flip when you look at the—the history of the past. And what we're saying with the Republican Leadership Council is, we've got to get back there. Because whoever you elect as President, whoever you have in Congress, you need a bench. You need a farm team in the states. But you need, also, strong state representatives. And particularly, when you understand there's gonna be a census in 2010, and after that, you're redistricting. And that is largely controlled by your state elected officials and your local elected officials. So you want to not forget the importance of those offices.

BRANCACCIO: So what went wrong for Republicans that you're having to fight these battles? Is it something about a tendency not to embrace candidates who might be considered moderate?

WHITMAN: That's part of it. And part of that comes from a change we've seen, really, in both parties over the last 12 years or a little longer. Where every issue now is gauged through the partisan political prism. Not the policy prism. When they look at an issue, they say, "Is this gonna be good for me in the next election? Good for my party?" And that's the position I take. Not is it good for the country or good for my constituents so much. And then we've started to see this shift where every issue is made into a moral issue. It's—it's morally correct to hold this position or that position.

BRANCACCIO: And you can't argue against a moral position.

WHITMAN: No. And how do you—you can't compromise on a moral position. If I think I'm morally right, and I take this position, and you have the opposite position, then you're morally wrong. And you don't compromise with someone you think is morally wrong. And so we've gotten to this point. It's certainly clear in Washington and it's becoming, unfortunately, more—the case at the state level, where people just won't talk to one another. And they won't come together.

It happened two years ago with immigration. Where you had—a Senate bill and a House bill on an enormously important issue to the country. They never even appointed the conference committees. It was both sides. And each thought, you know, I can hammer the other side with this issue. But real people were being hurt and a real issue has gone unattended. And that's got to stop.

BRANCACCIO: Haven't the Democrats been a little bit more shrewd in choosing moderate candidates to run in seats traditional held by Republicans? The Republicans tend to choose these candidates who are more to the right. Certainly not toward the center.

WHITMAN: Well, we've seen that in a number of—of states. And that's what is also distressing to me. What we've seen is centrist Republicans challenged by Republicans who are further to the right in primaries. Knocked off in primaries because the average voter turnout in primaries is ten percent in this country, until this year. And so they get knocked out and then they can't win in the fall because they're not representative of the views of that constituency.

We have been now categorized as a mean-spirited, narrow-minded litmus test party. And the American people just aren't that. They can believe in things very deeply. But they are not narrow-minded. They are not litmus test, by and large. They may have their issues that drive them. But they are also willing to understand that there may be a different position or they can respect. If I believe this deeply, I can respect that you might have the opposite opinion. But believe it just as deeply.

And they'll say, "Look, we've got to solve these problems. So let's figure out where we can come together." There'll be a certain point beyond which neither one of us can go. But up until that point, there's plenty of—of room here. That's why you have groups now like Tuesday group in the House. That is bringing together centrist—Republicans, particular. Actually, it is all Republicans. But they work across the aisle. They're often called disloyal.

The gang of 14 in the Senate, way back four years ago now, when we were having such a problem with traditional nominations said, "This is ridiculous. We've always been able to compromise and find—our courts need the judges, let's do it." And they were excoriated in their party cau—caucuses for being disloyal. But they said, "We're about making the country work better. And this is more important."

BRANCACCIO: It's a hard time, though, for folks who try to do that. I think Christopher Shays, is the Congressman from Connecticut.

WHITMAN: Connecticut, yes.

BRANCACCIO: Right there at the center. And he might win in November, but he might not win November. It's not clear.

WHITMAN: Right. No, it's a tough race and he's the only centrist
left standing for the Republicans on the East Coast. On the Northeast. So it—it is tough because the message we've been sending from Washington has been so focused on winning elections. And that's always been the age-old pension for both sides, for anybody in political office. You can't do anything, you can't influence things if you're not in office, has been the feeling. And so you need to get into office. And if that's what it takes to get into office, the ends justify the means. I don't believe that. And I what I have seen is that we have been able to win some elections. You know, I mean, Karl Rove was brilliant in 2002 and 2004. You'd never had an incumbent President in 2004 add to that plurality in the House and Senate the way George Bush did. But that was at what price governance? And because the issues that had been chosen in those elections, the issues that they had everybody run on were those deeply emotional issues. Not the ones that you talk about over the dining room table at dinner or breakfast every day. Can I make the mortgage? How am I gonna pay for this—the kids? To get them the clothes they want. What—what about healthcare? What am I gonna do?

But it was gay marriage and abortion. And those are deeply emotional issues for people. Not the most important, I would argue, in their daily lives. But deeply emotional and—and concerning. That's what we ran on. And so at the end of the day, you had people who just, because these are such deeply held moral positions, would not talk to somebody on the other side. You're not just immoral. You're wrong. You're evil. I've got to do away with you. And with that kind of an attitude, you can't get the policy moving.

BRANCACCIO: The McCain ticket, with Palin, is that more to the conservative side? Is it more to the moderate side? What do you think, in the end, when you take their two ideological positions?

WHITMAN: Well, it's interesting that you ask that. Because,
clearly, I think—Governor Palin appeals to the very conservative side. There's no question about that. You've heard it from—the leaders of those groups who say she's a central casting vice president as far as—

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, Ralph Reed loved the appointment.

WHITMAN: —Ralph Reed and—and all the others. And you look at John McCain, and he's the maverick. He is someone the conservatives, the far—the—most conservative of the conservatives haven't embraced. They've been concerned about him. Because he believes in—he believed in stem cell research. You know, he—he bucked the president on some of the—the torture aspects in Abu Ghraib and things like that. So he is more to the center. Even though, socially, he's always had very conservative views. He's pro-life and always has been. But that's not been his driving force. And—and that, to me, is what's important, really, is we have got so many issues that are so broad, just the economy, the war. I mean, think about them. He is that kind of independent thinker that can reach across party lines. But he doesn't lead every litmus test that the far right might have.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New
Jersey, former head of the EPA, and good Republican, thank you very much.

WHITMAN: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: You may have heard something about the police response to demonstrators here in Saint Paul this week. Before the Republican Convention—or the demonstrations—even began, there were law enforcement raids on protesters and activists. By far, most protestors were peaceful, but some demonstrators got rowdy and broke windows. Police responded with, among other things, teargas and mass arrests. Among those arrested were journalists, including an Associated Press photographer and Amy Goodman, host of the award-winning radio and tv news program "Democracy Now." Goodman's arrest was caught on videotape, and it has touched off an intense debate about the freedom of the press and the role of the police.

BRANCACCIO: So, Amy Goodman, how 'ya been holding up here?

GOODMAN: Well—Labor Day was quite a day of work. It was the first day of the Republican Convention. So, around 4:00 I was on the floor. And I got a call on my cell phone that our reporters, our producers, Nicole Salazar and Sharif Abdel Kouddous —had been arrested and were bloodied by police—covering a protest here in St. Paul.

BRANCACCIO: So, you're inside the—

GOODMAN: The Convention Center.

BRANCACCIO: —arena? And you—

GOODMAN: On the floor—

BRANCACCIO: —on the floor—

GOODMAN: —of the—Convention floor.

BRANCACCIO: So, you make a beeline out to find out what's going on with your producers?

GOODMAN: We raced to the site where they were. Jackson and 7th in St. Paul. When we came—the police had really locked down the area. There was a long riot police line. I ran up to them. And—I stopped and said—"I wanna talk to your commanding officer. Two of our producers are inside. They've been arrested. And we need to have them released. They're accredited journalists." And I showed my accreditation as well.

I mean, it wasn't seconds before they grabbed me and tossed me through the police line, pulled me through the police line. They twisted my arms back, and they forcibly put on those plastic, rigid cuffs that just dig into your wrists. They pushed me against a wall. And they pushed me down on the ground. I demanded to see our producers. I finally saw Sharif across the parking lot—

BRANCACCIO: This is the—one of the producers?

GOODMAN: One of our producers. And he was in handcuffs. His—credentials in full view. I demanded to see Nicole. They brought me over to Sharif. I kept saying, "We are journalists. We're fulladee—fully credentialed." With that—a Secret Service agent came over and ripped my credential off. Also took Sharif's high security credential.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I wanna understand this better. Your arms are behind your back. And somebody came by and took the credential?

GOODMAN: Yes. I couldn't do anything. And the Secret Service agent took the credential. Being—we were being arrested by the Minneapolis police. But Secret Service came over and took the credential. They put me on the police wagon. And Nicole was there. She, too, wearing her credential. And I asked Nicole what had happened. They had been at work. We work right by this space where the protest was. They heard a commotion, came downstairs, saw the police. She was filming with a video camera. It was a parking lot. The police came at her very fast, full riot gear. And they were saying, "Face on the ground. Face on the ground." We have the videotape of this. She films her own—filmed her own violent arrest. The police came at her. She was trapped. It's a parking lot. There were cars behind her. And she said, "Where can we go? Press. Press." And she's showing her press credential. And she's filming. They take her down. She's on her stomach. They've got their—she didn't know if it was their boot or their knee—between her shoulder blades. And another one, inexplicably, is pulling on her leg. And they're saying, "Face on the ground." So, she—her face is bloodied as she is pulled. That's what happened with the two of them.

BRANCACCIO: But we should point out the context of this. Thousands of people demonstrating here in the twin cities peacefully. However, there had been some people breaking windows. I think actually the window where you have your studio got broken the other day?

GOODMAN:The—the building.

BRANCACCIO: The building did?

GOODMAN: Yeah. The window was broken. I mean, I think the point here in this situation—when I arrived on the scene—police had secured the area. They were in total control. So, when I came up, I was the only one—in that line of police. And I was in front of them. And I was just saying, "I wanna talk to a commanding officer. I want my reporters—my producers released."

BRANCACCIO: Goodman's producers both face felony riot charges. Goodman herself was charged with interfering with a peace office and misdemeanor obstruction of the legal process. Their attorneys are working to have the charges dropped.

BRANCACCIO: Now, you attended a press conference where the St. Paul Chief of Police was asked about this?

GOODMAN: When I got out of jail that night, the next morning I heard that the St. Paul Police Chief, John Harrington, was holding a news conference. So, I went to the news conference and asked him—how we are to operate in this kind of atmosphere. Ha—what they're telling police they should be doing. And what they're telling press they should be doing. And—

BRANCACCIO: How can reporters do their jobs in covering—people speaking out against what they see going on here?

GOODMAN: He suggested embedding in the police mobile field force.

BRANCACCIO: Embedding like Iraq embedding?

GOODMAN: Yes. Embedding —there it's in the front lines of troops. Well, here, in some cases, it's all too often similar, I should say. But, you know, we are un-embedded. We are independent. And it's absolutely critical to have independent journalists in a time of war, in a time of pressure like this. I mean, here at the Republican Convention in St. Paul, last week at the Democratic Convention in Denver, it's supposed to be celebrating the finest of the democratic process. And instead, they're cracking down on the journalists, the watchdogs.

BRANCACCIO: Do you feel that's what's happening? You're not just sort of swept up in a bigger process?

GOODMAN: I think—

BRANCACCIO: Do you think it's a crackdown?

GOODMAN: I think there are two things going on. Yes, I think there is a sweep. And there has to be a serious question asked about many of the peaceful protestors that were arrested. But also, we are so clearly marked that it is specifically not separating out journalists. And it has not only been us. The day we arrived, two days before Labor Day—I got a text when I was at the airport that the police were raiding the I-Witness Video collective home. They had come into town. They are going to be documenting what happened at the Republican Convention. And the police had surrounded the area. We raced there. The police were there. Eileen Clancy, the head of I-Witness Video was, along with others, in handcuffs in the backyard. What happened with Eileen Clancy and this group that are so well-known, especially in New York, for documenting what happened at the Republican Convention in 2004—

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, they trained their cameras on police action in the—just this situation.

GOODMAN: Right. And here—I mean, there is a direct targeting that is going on. They are—

BRANCACCIO: Because this incident—

GOODMAN: —takin' out—

BRANCACCIO: —you're talking about is before the Convention has actually started?

GOODMAN: Oh, y—this is what is called a pre-emptive raid. You know, Tom Cruise, Minority Report, being arrested for pre-crime?

BRANCACCIO: Yes, I remember that film. Before the crime happens?

GOODMAN: That's right. Well, this is a pre-emptive raid. And we saw the warrant, which, by the way, was for the house next door and not for theirs. But it said among other things hard drives, computers, cell phones. So, they tossed the place. They're getting directions from higher up. And this idea of pre-emptive raids—pre-empting crimes. And what are the crimes? Eye-witnessing what the police are doing?

BRANCACCIO: Amy, what do you think the effect of these kind of actions can be?

GOODMAN: I think we're talking about a real chilling effect. People are afraid to go out. Is it worth it? I mean, people believe in the principle of bearing witness. But there is a limit. I mean, you don't wanna be hurt. The police chief and the press conferences that have been held since we were arrested, they talk about, "Well, they're investigating—whether to bring certain charges." I said, "Are you gonna be investigating the police officers as well? Are you gonna be investigating misconduct? It's not just about whether charges will be dropped against innocent people. It's about bringing charge against—against those who are abusing their power."

BRANCACCIO: You're making a lot of very interesting points. There's a quadrillion members of the media in the—arena right now. And if the word is out that pretty much they're sweeping up reporters as well, you're liable to stay inside in the relative safety of the—arena.

GOODMAN: Well, that's a key point. And several journalists have said to me—"Well, why is it that some reporters are getting arrested, but many of us are not?" And I s—just simply said, "Are you out in the streets? Are you there covering—you know, 90 percent of life is just showing up." And it is our job to be there. Our coverage is called Breaking With Convention: War, Peace, and the Presidency, From the Suites to the Streets, to the Convention Floor. We've gotta cover all aspects of this event.

BRANCACCIO: It's not just what's happening in the podium. It's also what's happening on the streets. But if you're afraid of gettin' beaten up or arrested or getting a felony on your record, maybe you'll stick around eating hot dogs and sitting in your comfy seat inside?

GOODMAN: That's right. In the sky boxes. But that only gives you one picture. It is very important—that we be covering all aspects of this, what is called a national security event. Because so often those inside the convention center, whether it's the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, do not represent the majority of Americans. The people out here in the streets also represent many people. They're grassroots movements that are not invited inside. But they're deeply concerned about issues like war, like torture.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, thank you very much.

GOODMAN: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: There was another big political convention going on in Minnesota this week. Ron Paul's "rally for the republic" stole at least a bit of the media spotlight. They claim to be the true agents of political change. But where do they go from here? Read our exclusive interview with Ron Paul on our website. And that's it for NOW. From Saint Paul, Minnesota, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.