Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman rose to New Jersey's highest office as a Republican. She worked in the Nixon administration and as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush. She founded what eventually became the Republican Leadership Council. But Whitman has had less and less common cause with the national Republican Party in recent years, and in 2020 she backed Joe Biden over Donald Trump.
Now she is a co-chair of a new party hoping to appeal to those seeking another option somewhere to the center of Republicans and Democrats, alongside former presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.
The Forward Party hasn't exactly received a warm welcome among political commentators in Whitman's home state.
Alan J. Steinberg, a former EPA regional administrator and former executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, wrote that Forward will "most likely have the opposite impact, enhancing the electoral prospects of the current authoritarian anti-democracy Republican Party" in a column for InsiderNJ.com. But beyond that, he argued Forward would have difficulty crafting a compelling message — it hasn't committed to specific policies — and that Yang and Whitman didn't have the political heft to give it real momentum.
NJ.com's Paul Mulshine called the party "moderately dumb," criticizing it for "mushy rhetoric" around issues like gun control, where Forward says it rejects extremes advocated by Democratic and Republican leaders.
Whitman spoke with Kerry Nolan on WNYC's Morning Edition Thursday to talk about the party and address the question: What can it, or any third party, hope to accomplish?
The transcript of their discussion below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kerry Nolan: It's been more than 17 years since you wrote your book, "It's My Party Too," which advocated for what you called "radical moderates." You made the case that the Republican Party was pulling too far right on social issues. And that was before the rise of President [Donald] Trump, and even before the Tea Party. What have you seen since then?
Christine Todd Whitman: Things have just gotten worse. I mean, there's no satisfaction in "I told you so," because I care too much about this country. So it's frustrating. It's disheartening. And that's why the four of us who are the co-chairs are feel that this is the moment. I mean, you have got 60% of the American people who say they would like to see a third alternative. In fact, it's almost two-thirds of registered Democrats and registered Republicans who say they'd look at a third party.
People are just feeling abandoned by their parties because a majority of us are in the middle.
Nolan: Many pundits have kind of been dismissive about the Forward party, or they say if it has any effect, it'll wind up mostly pulling votes from Democrats, in particular from Never Trump centrists, as well as moderate Republicans. What do you say?
Whitman: Well, first of all I say, (people think) we will be a spoiler, and my response is: "A spoiler of what?" The system is not working for people, the average person, the way they want it to. We're not gonna spoil anything. And when people say this, they're really looking to the presidential (election) in 2024. That's not what we're about. We're about the 500,000 offices that are elected across this country. We're building from the ground up, we're doing something entirely different and people complain and say, "Well, what's your platform?" We know that the American people coalesce around a commitment to economic opportunity, personal freedom and liberty, and the defense of democracy at home and abroad.
That's the center core. What we're going to do is go out, starting September, have a series of listening sessions around the country, asking the people: "What do you want? What do you think are the major issues? What do you think, how should we be approaching them?" And then in next summer, we'll have a convention, where we will develop a platform based on what the American people want.
And we hope that both liberals and conservatives, people all across the spectrum, will find a home there. They're not going to agree on everything. They never do, and never have. But they can still come together under those, with those basic principles. And we can start moving the country forward.
Nolan: It's interesting. Forward has wrought some curious alliances. A co-founder of the Renew America Movement that merged into forward, Evan McMullin supported overturning Roe v. Wade when he ran for president in 2016, and then he reversed that position this year. Andrew Yang has been an advocate of intensely progressive policies, like universal basic income. And another group that merged into Forward, the Serve America Movement, was founded by George W. Bush administration staffers. How are they all coming together?
Whitman: Well, that's the point? I mean, you've really just made my point for me. It's that these are all people who say, "We have to do better than what we're doing. We have to offer the people another way." We're not going to agree on all of these issues when get down to specifics, but we can agree on one of the most important things to move the country forward.
What can we do to ensure economic opportunity for everybody and personal liberty in our defenses? Let's start there. But of course we have to start back a bit. We don't wanna get too far ahead of ourselves. We've got to get on the ballot. We're looking to get on the ballot on 15 states by the end of this year, 30-some-odd next year and all 50 states by 2024.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the office for which Andrew Yang ran in New York. He is a former New York City mayoral candidate.