Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recently caught flak from some of his home-state Republicans for crossing party lines and endorsing President Obama's stimulus package, even introducing Obama at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers where the president promoted his plan. Crist lobbied GOP members of Florida's congressional delegation to support the stimulus plan, but none of them did. "I don't know that my governor understands all the details of this package," said Sen. Mel Martinez during the debate on the measure. But Crist does seem to have a handle on his state: A Feb. 11-16 Quinnipiac University poll of Floridians gave him an overall 67 percent job approval rating, with 66 percent approval from Democrats.
In an interview with National Journal's James A. Barnes, Crist discussed the stimulus, the Republican Party and the virtues of bipartisanship. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the Insider Interview archives for more discussions in the series.
NJ: I got a chuckle reading St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith's story quoting one GOP consultant saying that if Florida Republican members of Congress got you in a dark alley, "all you'd have left is a tuft of white hair."
Crist: [Laughs] It's a funny line, isn't it?
NJ: Seriously, you called up Florida Republican members of Congress and asked them to back the stimulus. What arguments did you make to them and why don't you think any took your advice?
Crist: To the latter, I'm not sure, but I respect it. That's OK. But to the former, the argument I would make and did make was that in Florida, our state budget is facing a significant deficit and we just came through a special session where we had to cut another two-and-a-half billion dollars. We've cut $7 billion over the past two years since I've been governor in order to stay in balance, as we're constitutionally required. And if we were going to be able to continue to fund education properly and take care of health care via the Medicaid program and have appropriate funding for infrastructure that would produce jobs -- I think for every billion dollars of spending in infrastructure, they estimate it would create 28,000 jobs, and we're just above 8 percent unemployment in Florida -- that that would be a help. And finally, that during this economic crisis it's important to try to give people hope and provide job opportunities for them, which I think all of those things would do. And that Florida deserves her fair share. That it appeared from a pragmatic point of view this plan was going to pass. Given that reality in my view, I wanted to make sure that Florida was able to get her fair share for our taxpayers.
NJ: I guess that's what you'd say to Republicans who say, "Hey, we're just finding our voice as a party opposing the stimulus and then governors like Crist go out and endorse it."
Crist: Yeah. Well, you know, right. And I felt like a conversation I've had with some of my fellow Floridians, many of them, is that you've sent an awful lot of your hard-earned dollars to Washington, D.C., and it occurs to me that if this thing is going to happen, which clearly it was destined to do, then by golly we ought to get some of those hard-earned tax dollars of yours back here to the Sunshine State.
NJ: Do you think opposing the stimulus is a good way for Republicans to define themselves as a party?
Crist: Well, obviously I didn't think so. But for others, that's fine. I mean, I don't think there's any requirement that all Republicans sort of be in lockstep. Ronald Reagan used to have a great line, that if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, you're probably my friend. And I subscribe to that. I think that we're not going to agree on everything, nor should we. And, I mean, my word, not many spouses agree on 100 percent of things.
NJ: Indeed, Republican governors had different views on this. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of your colleagues, talked about the stimulus bill and said the message that the bailout sends is one of, you don't have to be responsible for your actions. How do read the diversity of opinion among Republican governors on the stimulus?
Crist: All I can say is, from my point of view it's a matter of practicality and pragmatism. You deal with the realities of an economic crisis, the impact it's having on your state, and the fact that this plan in my view was going to pass anyway, so let's do the best we can with a difficult situation and try to help the people first. To me it was all about helping the people first.
NJ: Do you think the split among the governors over the stimulus bill will lead to any fallout at the upcoming National Governors Association meeting?
Crist: Oh, no, none whatsoever. I think the governors are a pretty mature group of folks and I don't envision that, no sir.
NJ: On this point, I understand that down in Miami at the Republican Governors Association meeting in November, governors including Perry and South Carolina's Mark Sanford wanted the Republican governors to take a united or a principled stand against stimulus legislation that President Obama was likely to propose, but other Republican governors opposed that -- did that discussion take place formally or informally among the governors?
Crist: There was discussion of that, and I think it turned out for the best. [Laughs]
NJ: Were you one of those who argued against taking that position, governor?
Crist: Evidently. Yes sir.
NJ: Are you at all worried that your support for the stimulus could hurt you in your re-election bid or if you decide to run for the Senate?
Crist: No. My concern is not about politics, it's about people, and the people of my state are hurting. And I want to do everything I think that is necessary to help them out in a difficult circumstance and, you know, continue to give them hope and encouragement that we'll get through this, because I know we will.
NJ: There are a lot of people who say, "The Republican governors, they should be the face of the party, we should look to them for ideas, we don't run anything in Washington as a party anymore." What do you think about that and what do you think the real prospects are for that?
Crist: I think that's fine for people to have that view, but I think that, you know, there's all kinds of leadership. And it can be determined by how you feel about "x" issue or "y" issue. It can also be determined by how you comport yourself. And what I mean by that is whether or not you're willing to work with others for the greater good. And this was an issue to me, being willing to work with this new administration across party lines in order to strive to help the people that I was elected to serve. I'm not the governor of the Republicans of Florida; I'm the governor of Florida. And I understand that, and I want to do everything I can to help all the people of my state, almost 20 million that live here. And that's just kind of how I looked at it.
NJ: Do you think, in this day and age, maybe demonstrating the ability to work across party lines, whether it's in a state capitol or between a state capitol and Washington, that maybe that's just as important a profile for Republicans to have as any particular position on an issue?
Crist: I think it's extremely important. I think it's exactly what the people of this country want us to do, particularly now. I mean, when we're in a war and under attack by a foreign enemy, it's a time to rally, to work together and to come together. We're sort of under economic attack and it seems to me that in a time of crisis like that -- when it's now pretty universally accepted that we're in a very difficult economic situation -- at times like that more than any other you need to pull together for the good of the country first, the people of our country.