When Robert Wexler retired in 2010 after seven terms as a Democratic House member from Florida, he became president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. He talked with National Journal about advising President Obama in 2008, the fate of the House, and life as a freelance peacemaker. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Do you miss Congress?
Wexler I miss the many friends that I had both in Congress and among my constituents, but the act of being a member of Congress—I don’t miss it. I had been in elected office for 19 years, and I had run for office every two years for 21 years, starting when I was in my 20s. It was my time to do something different.
NJ What do you think about the level of partisanship in Congress?
Wexler Sometimes people romanticize the [low] level of partisanship in the past. My first term was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, so it’s hard to imagine a more partisan time than that. And then there was the election of 2000. Maybe the difference is that the politics of the two parties, but particularly the politics of the Republican Party, have become more extreme, so the ability to compromise has been significantly lessened.
NJ In an earlier interview with NJ, you said there were “legitimate questions” about President Obama’s choice for Defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel. Has he answered those questions?
Wexler Senator Schumer had a long dialogue with him at the White House, and I read his description of the meeting. I don’t think Senator Hagel could have been more convincing in terms of his support for the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, his support for continuing and enhancing the American-Israel security relationship, and for his keen understanding of the threat the Iran nuclear-weapon program creates.
NJ Were you offended by his previous use of the term “Jewish lobby”?
Wexler It’s not a phrase I would ever use, and often the phrase has been used by others in a negative light, so I don’t think it’s appropriate. Hagel rightfully acknowledged that mistake.
NJ Does the Hagel appointment signal that the president or the Democratic Party takes the Jewish community for granted?
Wexler That suggests a degree of callousness toward Jewish Americans which I know does not exist. We were essentially alone in opposition to Palestinian [statehood at the U.N.]. What bigger indication can you have than that? The president appointed Jack Lew, his chief of staff, an observant Jew, to be Treasury secretary. The Department of Treasury has more to do with the implementation of sanctions on Iran than any other department. As to Israel’s security, which is the most important issue, hands down, President Obama has set the standard for American presidents. Regarding Iran, President Obama has said Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is contrary to America’s national security interests. That’s exactly what we would want a president to say.
NJ What did you think of Mitt Romney criticizing Obama for failing to visit Israel during his first term?
Wexler What was offensive and so out of bounds was the notion that President Obama had thrown Israel under the bus. There’s actually no more damaging message that could be sent to Israel’s enemies.
NJ Are you disappointed the president hasn’t visited Israel while in office?
Wexler I offered the view that it would be beneficial to visit Israel, but I also think the president shouldn’t waste such a trip for a handshake. It’s got to advance a serious effort regarding security and/or make a big contribution to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If I had to bet almost anything, I would say he will have reason to visit the state of Israel during his second term.
NJ Tell me about your job.
Wexler The institution is kind of a neat thing because there are no members, there’s no fundraising.
NJ Ah, that’s why you left Congress!
Wexler Yeah. We took several visits back and forth through the [Persian] Gulf to work with moderate Arab leaders there. But in the last year or so, there have been far fewer opportunities to do anything positive. Everyone involved in this issue is in a holding pattern.
NJ What do you think about the possibility of Charlie Crist running again for Florida governor, this time as a Democrat?
Wexler He would be a very strong candidate. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the evolution of warmth by many partisan Democrats for Charlie. While he was the Republican governor, he took on voting-rights issues and voting rights for felons. He didn’t do it because he calculated a political advantage. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. If I can help him, I’d be more than happy to.
This article appears in the January 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Going It Alone.