The Politic sits down to discuss politics and policy with the Republican power broker, former Governor and possible Vice Presidential nominee.
Conducted by Jane Darby Menton
The Politic: What do you think was the most important piece of legislation you passed as Governor?
I would say it was the A-Plus plan, my very first major proposal. It was actually part of my campaign in 1988. In the first session in spring of 1999, the last bill passed was the A-Plus Plan, which brought accountability to schools in a meaningful way and started the process of really focusing on ensuring that huge gaps in learning began to subside. I think this is one of the huge challenges of our country. It may be hard to appreciate at Yale where people are super-smart and motivated and understand how important it is to learn, but a lot of kids in Florida don’t get that chance. And this was an important step in the right direction.
The Politic: Continuing the discussion about education, I’d like to talk a bit about your involvement in Foundation for Florida’s Future. What do you think are the most important areas in fixing Florida’s schools? How could this be done on both a state and national level?
I think it’s a series of things — there’s no one silver bullet. Strong families that make their child’s learning the most important thing would be huge. Moving to a performance-pay system for teachers rather than longevity of service would be helpful. Everyone’s interest should be aligned to student learning. Teachers who teach in underpaid social areas should be paid more. Teachers who are mediocre need to get better. Teachers who are really bad need to go.
Digital learning is another way you can bring higher quality learning to the classroom. We’re on the precipice of a huge change in education to move to a more customized way of learning, helping students learn in their own way any time and anywhere. Moving to a competency-based system is another big thing. Life doesn’t revolve around having 25 people sitting in seats for 180 days, then moving on to the next year whether or not they’ve completed the work and are prepared or could have done it in only 120 days. I think that should be a national movement. The Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is more focused on national issues, is dealing with this.
The Politic: What has been your most difficult political decision?
There are a lot of them. When people watch how governmental policy-making and policy plays out, they miss a lot. The thing is, life is never completely black and completely white where there are real lines of distinction. There’s always a lot of gray. I was involved in a lot of difficult situations; maybe the most emotional one was the Terry Schiavo matter. It was a position where you were determining life or death with your action. And for me that means you err on side of life. But while it was incredibly dramatic, my primary obligation was to follow the law. And it finally concluded when was a law got passed saying it was not constitutional. Then we had to give up the fight, if you will, and Terry Schiavo starved to death. It was pretty tough but there was nothing else anyone could do. You have to adhere to the rule of law and that’s what I did when I was Governor.
The Politic: Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has been in the press a lot lately. In light of recent events such as the Trayvon Martin case, what are your opinions of the law and what do you think its future is going to be?
Well I don’t think the law applies to the Trayvon Martin case. I’m not a lawyer and it’s dangerous to comment upon news — which tends to the emotional because it’s such a heartbreaking story. The judicial process works in a different way, but I think the judge will hear the evidence and reach this conclusion. But what might apply is the 10 to 20 Life Law, which I passed. It ensures that someone who commits a federal crime spends a minimum of 10 to 20 years in prison, which has had a very positive influence on the state.
But we will see. Governor Scott has a task force that is reviewing the law, based on the five to six years it’s been in existence. And I’m sure the task force will be able to assess it and advise the Governor accordingly. I don’t believe that this law has anything to do with Trayvon Martin’s death, however.
The Politic: Moving on to some national issues — as a prominent Florida Republican and a former Governor, you clearly know the state well. What do you think Romney will have to do to win Florida?
Well it’s going to be a close election. The President has committed major resources to Florida. He has hundreds of people already here working on the campaign, and they’ve already started advertising, which is a smart move. The problem is that the Florida economy hasn’t rebounded as quickly as it was in the past ten or fifteen years. I think the President has some headwinds in that regard.
I think Governor Romney’s challenge is to ramp up an organization that is deep and serious and focus comprehensively on economic issues. He has to not just point out where the President has failed us, but offer an alternative that gives people hope. I think in Florida — where the economy is the number one issue — that would be a driving strategy.
It’s going to be close. It’s always close in Florida. For some reason, we’re blessed with being a purple state, and one with a lot of influence.
The Politic: You recently endorsed Rubio as Romney’s Vice Presidential nominee. Given your understanding of Republican Party right now, how likely do you think it is that he’ll be on the ticket?
I don’t know if he would accept, and I don’t know if he will be asked. I just think, from looking at this from a broader view, that Marco would bring to the ticket a few qualities that I greatly admire. One, he is incredibly eloquent. Two, while he doesn’t have years and years of Washington experience, he has more political experience than Barack Obama at this point when he was running for President in 2008. He has an optimistic conservative message: it’s not an arms-closed message, but arms wide-open message. He’s from Florida and his family has an immigrant experience, which is compelling. I think he would send a positive signal to Hispanic communities across the country. There are a lot of good reasons to support him; I happen to care for Marco deeply. He’s a good friend and I’m a great supporter of his. I think he would help Mitt Romney.
The Politic: What do you think are the best and worst things President Obama has done in his first term in office?
I think the best thing he has done was to hire Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and to challenge some of the core political constituencies in his party to focus more on children and less on the adults inside our education system. I think they’ve done a pretty good job in that regard. Where the President has failed is a complete lack of understanding in how economics work and a failed effort to use government to try to restore economic activity. The net effect of this failure is a super-sized hyperactive government that has created so much uncertainty that it has deferred economic recovery.
In the short run, his politics have failed. In the long run — and this is not just his doing — our structural problems as a nation continue. I don’t think the President fully appreciates the power of compounding these problems. If we don’t pause and deal with our entitlement problems, our deficit and debt problems, the structural problems in our healthcare system, the over-litigation that makes it difficult for our businesses to compete, we’re going to be in trouble down the road. The President is supposed to lead and there hasn’t been that much leadership on long-term policies.
The Politic: What do you think of Obama’s record on Cuba?
I’d say it’s passive — there is not much of a record. Actually, we see very little activity in all of Latin America. It doesn’t look like it’s on his first page of things to worry about or concern himself with. There was a small effort to extend the hand of friendship early in his administration, right when Raul Castro took over for his brother in the dictatorship, but he [Raul] rejected it out of hand. Since then, there has not been much activity. I would say there haven’t been any proactive efforts to support the dissidents.
There’s been increased oppression in Cuba. Look at “The Ladies in White,” a group of women who pray and march peacefully in Havana. Their leader was arrested and died from health issues, but there’s a lot of doubt that those were natural causes. There are hunger trikes where people have died, but there’s no outcry. People are crying out for attention to get the greatest country in the world to recognize that in the gulag of Cuba there are people who want to take another path and are hoping the United states will be there as a supporter. I’m disappointed that there haven’t been significant efforts in that regard.
The Politic: What do you think the biggest foreign policy issue facing the country is right now?
Probably the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran and the ramifications that has to our national security and for the Persian gulf and for Israel. There are many other challenges but that’s probably the most dramatic, immediate one.
The Politic: What’s next for you?
I don’t know. I have a full agenda of activities right now in my business and the Foundation [for Florida’s Future]. I’m kind of all in life right now. I have a grandchild named Georgia whom I like to see. I’m working so hard that I don’t have much time to reflect on the future. I love my life and I love having a voice to express views that hopefully will have some influence. So I will continue to stay involved in the policy side of politics, which I enjoy.
Jane Darby Menton is a freshman in Silliman College.