ORLANDO — Democrats eagerly hope to defeat freshman Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and are spending millions of dollars in attack ads against him.
But Webster says he insists on running a positive campaign and he’ll say very little about his Democratic opponent, Val Demings.
Webster served for almost three decades in the Florida legislature and once revamped the operations of the Florida House, so a simple question about the mechanics of Congress can elicit a long and nuanced answer. Webster also offered that he wishes that colleagues of both parties would focus more on legislating instead of campaigning while in Washington.
2chambers spoke with Webster Thursday at his campaign office, located around the corner from the Holy Land Experience, one of this region’s newest theme park attractions. The conversation below is edited for length and clarity:
2chambers: I was reminded in your recent Orlando Sentinel profile that you attend those regularly-scheduled meals with members of the opposite party. What’s it like dining with the opposition?
Webster: The rules are that there’s a bunch of Republicans and Democrats and one of the leaders of the party. And you can’t sit next to a member of your party. We invite opposite party members to attend, so I invite Democrats. It’s a pretty good-sized group and it’s hard to get people together for anything, so it takes a few months to plan to make sure everyone can come.
2chambers: Are things going to get any better, any less partisan in Washington after the election?
Webster: That I’m not predicting, I’m just trying to win a race. And if I get there, I’ll see the lay of the land. It depends on how it all goes down.
2chambers: What is the pitch to voters, why do you deserve two more years?
Webster: I went there to change the culture of Washington. That begins the way you campaign to get there, in my mind. I offer a stark difference between myself and most everybody, but including my opponent and including Alan Grayson. I don’t do negative advertising. The reason I don’t is because it’s the playbook of Washington, and it’s wrong. You can’t change the culture in Washington if you don’t change how you get there.
So I always do positive ads. Grayson spent $6 million against me and this year the Democrats are probably spending about $4 million against me. But that’s a big difference, because it affects the way you serve: If you can twist the truth, tell falsehoods and get into negative advertising, then the means are justified by the end, which means you get there. And if you get there that way, the first thing you get there on the ground is how do I get reelected? But if you get there a different way – you run on who you are and what you want to do – then you do that. But if you don’t tell them anything you’re going to do you just tell them how bad your opponent is then you’re there and you never want to leave.
I want to change that culture in Washington. That’s a big difference between me and my opponent. She’s already bought into the culture and she’s not even there yet.
The second thing is that I try to lead by example. I was in the Florida House of Representatives for 18 years, the State Senate for 10 years. I was the first Republican speaker of the House in 122 years. I rewrote the entire rule book – I did it so that every member became empowered. The normal way is that there’s a pyramid of power and that’s the default – that a few people at the top do everything and everybody else is down at the bottom of the pyramid.
Well, if you’ve been in the minority for 122 years, you know how at the bottom we were. So I wanted to change that structure.
And I was frugal. My opponents say I spent $100,000, but I saved $10 million in the House budget, 20 percent. And most people, Democrats and Republicans, say it was the best-run House ever.
Now I’m in Washington and I want to lead by example. I gave back my salary, I actually got Warren Buffet to match it because he made some outlandish claim that he would do that, and he did it. And I sent back almost half a million dollars from my budget. Because the culture says, if it’s appropriated, spend it. That’s not right, we’ll never change anything if we don’t change our own personal behavior.
2chambers: You mentioned the flattened hierarchy you established in Tallahassee. Clearly nobody is doing that in Washington. So how frustrating was it being a freshman?
Webster: Well, I made some recommendations. I appeared before the transition teams before I was sworn in and they had hearings. And I told them that no good thing happens after 6 p.m. and so why not have votes before then? They picked 7, which wasn’t bad, compared to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. I said and they agreed that no good thing happens at night in legislation.
They do it as a trick. The year before I became [Florida House] Speaker, we passed the budget after midnight with no debate. We passed changes to welfare laws, we dismantled the Department of Commerce and created a new Department of Health. That happened every year. And then you go home and six months later you found out what was actually in the bill. It was like passing health-care reform.
And then there’s one that they’re still working on – and I think this is a biggie. The way they draft legislation is a bit elementary, I think, and sometimes a bit sloppy. You can’t really take up a bill and understand fully what it says, because you don’t get the stricken language. So what I’ve asked them – and it turns out there was another guy who had been speaker in Utah and agreed with me – that when you present a piece of legislation it should have the new language underlined and the old language stricken, but you could still read it with a line through it.
It’s taken them two years, there’s some kind of computer thing you have to do, but it will be a huge change.
2chambers: I guess this gets at my next question – Congress is coming off of its most unproductive session in years, and it remains very unpopular. But these appear to be your solutions to change the place?
Webster: Well, I think the House has been pretty productive. My biggest frustration is not that the Senate didn’t do anything, that’s not the point. The point is – pass a position … What are you negotiating when they don’t have a position? So that’s the biggest thing I wish would happen – that both houses would pass something and then have the other house pass something and then trade tit-for-tat. That’s the conference ideal. I’ve yet to figure out why there can’t be competing positions.
The old rule is House proposes, Senate disposes. That’s not new. What is new, and what’s bad for the process is that there’s no position established, especially on appropriations.
2chambers: As a veteran legislator, how do you assess Speaker Boehner’s leadership so far?
Webster: Every leader is dealt a particular hand. When I was speaker of the Florida House, I had a Democrat governor but a Republican Senate. It depends on what you’re given and so there has to be an amount of give and take. To me, I’ve been there, and given the hand he was dealt, I think he’s done an admirable job.
Some people say we should force members to do things. No, that doesn’t work, it doesn’t happen. You can say that – but in the end, there are leverage bars, no question about that, but you can’t force anybody to do anything. You have some leverage, they have some leverage. And on those things, he’s done very well.
2chambers: Going into the lame-duck and next year is there anything you’d like to see Boehner do differently, either from a partisan or institutional perspective?
Webster: As an institutionalist, I think there are some things I’d like to see changed that are out of his control. This might take some training, but I think the membership could be more involved in the solutions, but I think they’ve taken a position that I think is standard. But I hope we end up collectively, doing more. The only point of that is this – we have some unbelievable things that we’re staring at. I don’t care who’s elected president or who has the Senate or House, those problems aren’t going away.
Sometimes I think the president is lacking in one thing: I think it’s pretty hard for him to make a decision. I think he and Boehner got pretty far down the road to making a deal. I wasn’t there, but it seems like they were pretty far down the road. And in the end, I think sometimes it’s just hard for him to make a decision. So that’s the big stopper – can he really make decisions like that?
2chambers: As a veteran legislator and someone familiar with how the process works, I wonder if you think that too many of your colleagues are too inflexible? Do they not understand the art of legislating?
Webster: I’ve never really done an analysis of that. I would if I were higher up the chain.
2chambers: But you know that people say that Congress has become more parliamentary, and a lot of that – at least in your caucus – is driven by newer, more conservative members.
Webster: Well, there’s nothing wrong with living out your principles. I felt when I was in the legislature and the Congress that there’s only a few things that I would die for. There’s a longer list that I would dig in my heels, and so if you were in a tug of war, you’d hold on ‘til the end. But it doesn’t mean the end of the world. And the rest of them are available to discuss.
2chambers: You said there are things you’d die for or dig in your heels. In the forthcoming fiscal debates, what’s something you’d have to dig your heels on or something you’d let go?
Webster: I’d have to see the full deal.
2chambers: I had a feeling you’d say that.
Webster: But I have said I’m willing to sit at the table and right now there’s no table set. It depends on the dynamics of the election.
2chambers: Why shouldn’t your opponent Val Demings be elected to Congress?
Webster: Not my judgment to make. My judgment is to say why I think I should win, and that’s what I’m doing.
2chambers: Did you know her before this race?
Webster: Yes, and I knew her husband [Orange County Sheriff Joe Demings].
2chambers: I wanted to ask you about Alan Grayson [his 2010 opponent]: What do you make of his likely return to Washington?
Webster: Uh, this is America, anything can happen.
2chambers: What was it like running against him two years ago? He threw everything at you.
Webster: Yeah, it wasn’t that fun. But you could always expect something new everyday, if you like something new, and you don’t want to be bored, you weren’t bored in that race. The press wasn’t bored, I wasn’t bored and neither were the other observers, including the electorate.
Those things weren’t foreign, they may have been a little over the top. PolitiFact said it was about as low as you can get in some cases. There were some things that were already low, but he just eclipsed them.
2chambers: But what about the idea that you’ll have to serve in the same House as him?
Webster: I think that’s where people have a big misconception of how things ought to be. Partisan, politics, reelections all play into this. Would my friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz give a check to a Democrat? Sure. Would people who come to those dinners give checks? Yes, that’s the political part.
But when someone has the title of U.S. Representative or Senator, that’s different, that’s serving. A lot of people can’t transfer from one to the other or morph from one to the other. So those bitterness and hardships and feelings are all part of serving, but they can’t be.
Serving is different. Policy is important and it doesn’t matter who gets the credit or who proposes the idea. It ought to be that if he’s a member of Congress, he’s a member of Congress and he has a vote and he ought to be respected for that.
You run and you do everything that you can, you’re a member of a party, this is political and you do everything you can that you get there. But once you’re there, you’re serving and policy trumps all that other stuff.
2chambers: So in your view, the test for him will be whether he can transition into policy?