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Robert Wexler weighs in on Obama, progressives

WASHINGTON

Back in early 2007, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., became one of the first elected officials to endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president, even though Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination.

Wexler has since become one of Obama's top surrogates, especially among Jewish voters, campaigning for him around the country. Wexler has also published an autobiography, Fire-Breathing Liberal, which hit bookstores this month.

Wexler sat down with the St. Petersburg Times last week to discuss liberals, liberalism and his role in American politics.

So why write this book? Most political autobiography seems engineered to feather the nest for higher office. Not this one — there's too much mea culpa. What gives?

I hope it serves as a call to action for liberals, progressives . . . to take back our country, and to do it from a position of strength, to do it exercising political backbone, and having the strength of conviction to argue that liberal policies are what the country needs.

You clearly relish playing the bomb-throwing liberal or, as you put it in your book, the "rhetorical warrior." Why?

One of the ways (to be effective in Congress) is to be someone who helps shape public opinion. In order to help shape public opinion, you need to be authoritative. People need to believe that you're passionate and that you have convictions and that they're real.

How does your reputation on Capitol Hill square with reality?

There are many Republicans in the Florida delegation that I enjoy close friendships with . . . I think the public persona may be at times the fighting liberal, maybe a bit caustic, maybe a bit acerbic, and the truth is my personality, on a personal level, is really quite different than that.

In your book you discuss your long friendship with Gov. Charlie Crist, who served with you in the state Senate. But as he promotes Sen. John McCain for president, shifts on offshore drilling and cuts per-pupil spending for education, do you worry that Crist is using you to bolster his bipartisan credentials?

No. From my perspective, my friendship and my working relationship with Charlie is genuine, it's honest and it's sincere. . . . He is in my view one of the kindest, most generous people I have met in politics, and I respect his character.

As Mr. Count-Every-Vote in Florida's botched presidential election in 2000, was it awkward having to argue Obama's position to the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee that the 1.75-million votes cast in the Democratic primary shouldn't count?

By the time I went before the Rules and Bylaws Committee, the DNC had already ruled . . . and stripped us of our vote. I was comfortable because I was arguing, in effect, to count the Florida primary and to count the votes.

Why did you decide to back Obama instead of Clinton, unlike most of your Florida colleagues?

I wasn't convinced that he was going to win, but I was convinced that he was a once-in-a-generation opportunity . . . to be a transformational president. . . . And my overriding goal in supporting Sen. Obama was because in January 2009, I want to play political offense, not defense.

If Obama wins and succeeds at changing the tone in Washington, as he promises, doesn't that bode ill for a "fire-breathing liberal"? Aren't you part of the problem Obama says he wants to fix?

I can see how you would say that. But for me the beauty of Barack Obama is he transcends politics, and his candidacy is appealing to liberals and conservatives alike. . . . Just like Ronald Reagan . . . broadened the appeal of the conservative ideology, I think Barack Obama will broaden the appeal of the Democratic Party. I mean, I'm a fire-breathing liberal who wants to win.

How do liberals differ from conservatives?

I don't think liberals have a monopoly on truth or a monopoly on honesty. Not at all. I think where we differ is that liberals at their best have the capacity to dream really big, and that dream includes everybody. And conservatism, at least conservatism as they have played it out in America, for me it's just a bit too angry.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison @sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Robert Wexler weighs in on Obama, progressives 07/19/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2008 11:04pm]
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