In today’s volatile political climate, it can be hard to “cut through the noise,” as Dr. Bob McClure puts it. But Dr. McClure, as the CEO and President of the James Madison Institute, one of the oldest non-partisan think tanks in the country, makes it his (nonprofit) business to cut through the noise. The James Madison Institute focuses on “policy that advances opportunity and economic prosperity for all Floridians,” working with organizations such as the Republic Party, or the ACLU on issues such as criminal justice reform.
Dr. McClure is fluent in Floridian. He believes Florida is emblematic of the American Dream, saying “To me, what gets lost in all the weird Florida stuff, which is hilarious, I agree […] is that Florida is the prototypical example of the American Dream. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, it doesn’t matter where you come from, and it’s not something somebody designed.”
Dr. McClure’s interest in politics and public policy began at an early age, in a household that he described not as being “overtly political,” but as engaged. “Both my parents were college educated class America, in the ‘60s and ‘70s […] they were informed. SO, I remember the first landing on the moon with that old black television set. I remember Richard Nixon resigning on television.”
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida, and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host Chris Cate, and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, I talk to Dr. Bob McClure, the President and CEO of the James Madison Institute, a non-partisan public policy research organization based here in Florida. In our conversation, we’ll talk about the growing number of think tanks since the 1980’s, about [00:00:30] communicating policy ideas, to Floridians and elected officials, and about what Dr. McClure hopes will be the biggest issues in the 2018 election cycle. And you can hear it all, right now.
Dr. McClure thanks so much for being on the show. Can you maybe start by telling me about your path to becoming President and CEO of Florida’s oldest and largest free market think tank? Did you grow up in a political household?
Dr. Bob McClure: Well first of all, thanks for having me Chris. I’m really excited to be here, and really grateful for the opportunity. [00:01:00] I grew up in, I would not say a political household. I would say an informed household. Both my parents were college educated class America, in the 60’s and the 70’s. So, while they were not overtly political, because like most Americans they’re living their lives on a daily basis, most Floridians. They were informed. So, I remember the first landing on the moon with that old [00:01:30] black television set. I remember Richard Nixon resigning on television. We were engaged, and really my first taste of politics was being in a hotel room some place, some summer. I don’t remember where we were, watching a political convention, of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. And all I know about either guy was that Ford [00:02:00] didn’t want to give away … wanted to give away the Panama Canal, and Ronald Reagan didn’t want to give away the Panama Canal. That’s all I knew about either one of them.
But, if people remember at that convention Ronald Reagan had kind of said, “I’m not going to challenge Gerald Ford anymore, I’m going to let him be the nominee.” And yet, he gave one of the greatest speeches, and it kind of brought him to national attention to millions of Americans. And I remember seeing that speech with this guy with this jet [00:02:30] black hair, and I thought “I don’t really understand what he’s saying, but that’s really, really powerful.” And, I began to watch, and learn, and follow him over the next four years, and when I personally became engaged was in 1980. I was just starting high school, and the Reagan, Carter election was my first taste of politics. It really kind of stayed with me from then on.
Chris Cate: I mentioned that JMI is Florida’s oldest think tank, but [00:03:00] in 1987 the year that you’re founded, it doesn’t really feel that long ago. Am I just getting old, or are policy think tanks like JMI a fairly new phenomenon?
Dr. Bob McClure: Well, you’re getting younger, I’m getting older every day, I can tell you that. The think tank phenomenon is new. Relatively speaking, from political history. Because, I think where it kind of began, is that you saw, [00:03:30] at least with Stanley Marshall, who started JMI in 87, the proliferation of think tanks really began in the late 70’s. Not in James Madison Institute, but others. With the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. It kind of, dove tailed with the perfect storm with the election of Ronald Reagan.
At the time the academies, and some would argue today still, the academies being universities and colleges, funded so much by [00:04:00] government money, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative, it’s true, only came out with research that seemed to advocate for more government growth. And there was this kind of antidote of people under the radar screen, who looked for a credible … and that’s what’s important a credible research alternative to the academies, who just simply said; we need more government money for education, poverty, and health care, [00:04:30] and on and on and on. With the election of Reagan, who kind of took the nation by storm, and did kind of a 180 pivot in terms of how people view government in their daily lives, you saw the proliferation and the establishment of the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute. And they began to feed the Reagan administration limited government, free enterprise ideas that were an alternative to what you saw at the academy.
[00:05:00] So, the natural progression for that, is to drive it down to the state level. So, roughly 10 years later, in the late 80’s, 1987 for us, you began to see this proliferation of state based think tanks. And they’re called all kinds of different names depending on the state. We’re the James Madison Institute because of the fourth president and one of the founders, and his influence on the documents, that made this country what it is. The Goldwater Institute in Arizona is called the Goldwater Institute [00:05:30] cause that’s where Mary Goldwater was from, you know. The Mackinac Center in Michigan is named after the island. You know, just kind of depends on the different states. But you saw this proliferation of these state based think tanks because of how effective those national groups were initially. And that’s kind of, the natural progression and how they began 30 – 35 yeas ago.
Chris Cate: What is something that would surprise people about the James Madison Institute?
Dr. Bob McClure: [00:06:00] I think there’s a couple things that would surprise your listeners about the James Madison Institute, one is we don’t care who we work with. We focus on policy that advances opportunity and economic prosperity, for all Floridians. And so, that has made for some interesting bedfellows. We have worked with the traditional as people would think, you know, to the extent … and I don’t [00:06:30] know that it’s true anymore that limited government, free markets, that philosophy resides in the Republican Party, I don’t know that it does to the extent that it’s perceived that it’s there. We work with the Republican Party. Oh, by the way, the Republican Party owns everything in the state of Florida and you have to work with them as well. So, that’s kind of how we get tagged, I think unfairly. But that’s how we get tagged.
But it would surprise people to know that we work with the ACLU on criminal justice reforms; Southern Poverty Law [00:07:00] Center, Human Rights Watch on criminal justice, and those kinds of things. And I think it’s very, very … it’s not a group of people that you would think normally that we would work with. But, that’s on purpose, we’re driven by principle. Not by party, or politicians. We don’t throw bombs. We don’t insult people. We [00:07:30] don’t make it personal. So, that while Chris Cate and Bob McClure may disagree on issue A, and we’re gonna argue and go at … issue B because we don’t make it personal with each other, I’m going to come back to you on issue B, which I know you will agree with me on, and we will work together to advance it for all Floridians. Because, for us it’s about principle, it’s not about party and politicians.
Chris Cate: When you started here, it was 2003, Jeb [00:08:00] Bush had just been re-elected, we had an entirely different legislature because of term limits.
Dr. Bob McClure: Yep.
Chris Cate: Politically speaking, it was ages ago. At that time what were some of the biggest issues JMI was tackling, and how have you seen those issues evolve? Are some of them still around as primary issues you’re working on?
Dr. Bob McClure: Yeah. I think the answer to both of those questions … that the answers are yes, some of those issues are still the same. And yes, others issues have evolved. [00:08:30] So, for example 20 years ago, 25 years ago there was this kind of feeling that if you homeschooled your kid, or you … nobody knew what a Charter School was … or you went to a private school it was somehow aleadist, that you know, if you were homeschooled you were kind of considered this unabomber family. Like you’re in [00:09:00] the woods of Montana, or in the middle of Nowheresville, Florida. You take education, it has evolved over time. So, nobody looks at you cross-ways if you homeschool your children, or you attend a Charter School, or you go to a great public school, or what have you. Now, the evolution for that issue, which we think is really kind of the civil rights issue of our time, I to give all Florida children the opportunity that works best [00:09:30] for them. That’s very different than saying, “We need a Charter School,” in the early 90’s. We need to allow … we don’t need to criminalize homeschooling, which is really a movement. People forget that in the 90’s. So, education is evolved and become very different than it was; education reform. Very different than it was in the 90’s.
But having said that, every generation needs to be re-taught certain issues. You know, as Ronald Reagan said “Freedom is not [00:10:00] passed down in your blood stream.” Right? To your children. My children have to be taught … we would argue the virtues of free enterprise. Why does that matter? You know, when my kids used to go to Baskin Robins when they were little, they’d get a big ice cream cone. I’d say “Daddy gets the first bite,” and they’d say “Why?” I would say, “Because the Federal Government gets the first bite of everything I have.” We used to laugh, and the kids still laugh about it. But, you have to teach [00:10:30] every generation about free enterprise because the free enterprise system has, throughout the course of history, lifted billions of people out of poverty since our nation’s founding in the 1700’s. But you have to teach each generation.
Tax policy hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s become somewhat nuanced in different areas, but property rights; those issues haven’t changed a whole lot. So, it really depends on the issue, [00:11:00] but it’s really important to teach succeeding generations about the virtues of free enterprise.
Chris Cate: The current political climate seems, as toxic as I can remember it being, does that make it harder for you to work with legislators? And to communicate ideas to the general public when everybody seems so sensitive about their political beliefs?
Dr. Bob McClure: There is certainly a lot of noise in the system. And I think with the election of Donald Trump, whether you’re for him or against him, I think everyone [00:11:30] would admit the noise has been amped up, exponentially. It makes it harder to cut through the clutter of social media, and the noise. You know, you’ve got 200 television channels. You know, I grew up with 5. Right? Just a few years ago, I think I read somewhere that the iPhone just turned 10 years old, in the last few months. It’s amazing, it feels like we’ve always had iPhones. Right? So, [00:12:00] you look at social media, you look at the iPhone, you look at cable television; now cable television has archaic, nobody watches TV anymore. Right?
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bob McClure: Because you have Netflix, and you have DVR’s, and you have Hulu, and all that kind of stuff. So, cutting through the noise is a challenge, but the human condition, in my opinion is still the human condition. People want truth, people want to understand. [00:12:30] They still worry about their children, their jobs, their mortgage, their futures, the futures of their children and their grandchildren. Regardless of party, they love their country, they want to make it better. While the tools have changed, the human condition hasn’t changed. There’s the opportunity for an organization like James Madison Institute to hit that, not the screeching, rigid edges of each party, but this [00:13:00] majority middle that just wants a better life for themselves and their children, and their grandchildren. So, that to me presents the opportunity for organizations like the James Madison Institute and the future of the country.
Chris Cate: So, with so much … so many options, so much clutter out there, what is the actual way that you try to communicate your ideas? I mean how [crosstalk 00:13:25] Realistically speaking, what methods are you trying to use? Are you [00:13:30] active on social media? Tell me about the ways you try to communicate your ideas.
Dr. Bob McClure: Our ability to communicate is like a golf bag, for a major golf tournament. Right, so sometimes we’re gonna use the 3 wood, sometimes we’re gonna use the 8 iron, sometimes we’re gonna use the 4 iron, sometimes we’re gonna use the chipper and the putter. It just depends, and it depends on what we’re trying to communicate, why we’re trying to communicate, [00:14:00] and who we’re trying to communicate with. So, we’re very active on social media. Very active on Twitter, and LinkedIn, and Facebook, and all of the mediums there. It’s very important to do that, because that’s where much of the next generation is, all of the next generation is.
We are also very focused on personal relationships; personal relationships [00:14:30] with elected officials. So, if we are focused policy, Tweeting at an elected official … it’s nice I guess, but sitting down as you and I are right now, talking about education reform, or health care, or why this is important. And, oh by the way you can still get re-elected and be conservative at the same time. Let us help you think that through. There’s no substitute for personal relationships. We do a lot of events around the state. We’re [00:15:00] completely, privately funded by thousands of people across the state and the country who believe in our mission. And we want to go there and be with them, so we have events all over the state, probably 70 to 80 events a year, small, medium and large.
You can’t discount traditional media as well. I mean, people want to declare its death but you know, just take a gander at cable news. The [inaudible 00:15:26] may be in the local newspaper, but it’s also going to be online to [00:15:30] three times the audience that actually buys the newspaper anymore. So, for us communication in anything, a good education, a good marriage, a good sports team, is critical. We use the golf bag, with all of those gold clubs in there, in an effort to be as effective as … and personal, relational as we possibly can.
Chris Cate: We mentioned a couple of issues that have been around for several [00:16:00] years, but what would you say are the biggest policy issues facing Florida right now?
Dr. Bob McClure: I think Florida is in a unique situation. Demographically, the entire country is here. Roughly, 12 to 15 percent African American, 15 to 20 percent Hispanic, rural, urban, growth, retiree, military, military retiree, business [00:16:30] owners, the list goes on. I think that with so many people moving into Florida, there is dealing with growth, that effect property rights, that effect the public school systems, emerging public school systems, highways and transportation. I think the growth of Florida … I [00:17:00] think with term limits, and I believe in term limits, but I think with term limits our elected officials are driven by their small window. And they’re not looking out 20, 25, 30 years. Right? So, I think the challenge is how to manage that growth, and how to get our elected officials to have a long term view. Which, every person is focused self [00:17:30] preservation, IE getting re-elected, right? That to me is the great challenge, is to look around the corners of the future to try to plan for that future.
Chris Cate: So, recognizing that there are these critical issues for Florida, how does JMI approach them and try to provide solutions? I mean, when you have your team meetings, I don’t know how you categorize your meetings, but how do you sit down and say, we’re going to tackle this issue? I mean, how do you try [00:18:00] to approach that?
Dr. Bob McClure: Well, we’re always balancing short term and long term. It might be an immediate issue related to something that’s popped up in the state of Florida, that elected officials are dying for help with, for an answer to. But, we’re also thinking long term as well. The future of education reform, the future of health care reform, because we are nowhere near getting that resolved. [00:18:30] Property rights, where do cities and the ability to plan and manage a city or municipality, where does that collide with property rights? Somebody’s ability to buy and sell a farm, a business, a house. Those are long term issues.
So, we sit down on a weekly basis, and first and foremost [00:19:00] we’re principle driven. So, what that means is … I have the great fortune to have a terrific board of directors. Allan Bense, former Speaker of the House, you know Allan is our Chair and has been my Chair, I’ve only had two Board Chairman in 14 years. Al has been the Chair for 7 of those 14. So, we sit down and we’re focused on the principles first, the principles of free markets, limited government, personal responsibility, and property rights. So, [00:19:30] we’re not going to go off the reservation on to an issue, or take a position that’s not focused on principles, so we start there. It’s kind of ground zero. From there, we’re in constant conversation with the short term and the long term, but that goes back to communicating also with all those people we talked about earlier in terms of getting the message out.
Our job is to get the message out, but our job is also to hear what is happening on the ground in Melbourne Florida, in Jacksonville, in Lakeland, [00:20:00] in St. Pete. And we hear that, to listen to our elected officials at the capital. What are they struggling with? What are they dealing with? But, it starts with principles first and then it’s a constant balance between the short term and the long term. I will say this we’re not naive, we know elected officials have to face their constituents. We have the luxury of looking at the long term because our supporters have said, you can focus on the long term, and not [00:20:30] worry about kind of, getting an up or down vote every two years. We take that seriously.
Chris Cate: What do you hope is the biggest political issue in the 2018 election? What would you like to see the candidates all talking about and debating?
Dr. Bob McClure: I think Florida is such a diverse state, I think there’s going to be several that they’re going to have to focus on, simultaneously. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see … you can’t [00:21:00] discount what role a Trump administration will have in the ’18 election. What does that mean? I don’t know, and that’s another show for another day. But, the personality is to big, and his personality infiltrates everything, you’re seeing it drip down into local and state elections. So, that’s one … I wouldn’t say that’s an issue, but that is a variable that’s going to be critically important positively or negatively, who knows.
[00:21:30] I think the next Florida governor is gonna have to think about really, sounds kind of trite, but the future of the state. I mean it’s not the same state it was 20 years ago, or you know, JMI was founded 30 years ago and you said that sounds like a short amount of time. Well, we’ve had 5 or 6 governors, 5 or 6 presidents. You know, when Graham the next generation is now running for governor, Bob Graham was governor when [00:22:00] we were founded. Over half of the voting age population was not even really around, or was very, very young when Bob Graham was governor. So, people don’t know who he is, your own sense of history kind of begins the day you were born, right?
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bob McClure: So, I hope we’ll have a governor who is not so focused on the today. I’ll give you an example. [00:22:30] Whether your listeners agree with Rick Scott or not, what was his number one focus? It was jobs. Right?
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bob McClure: Whatever it took over an 8 year period to rebuild the economy, and build jobs. Okay, that is kind of his long term vision. Jeb Bush, education reform, right? He was focused on giving every child the opportunity to learn as best he or she could. What is Donald Trump’s long term version? I have no idea. [00:23:00] Right. So, I give you 3 Republicans, because 2 of them are current, and one of them was governor. You know, very, very big personality years ago. But, there’s a difference in the way governor Scott and governor Bush handled their offices, and the way the President is handling his.
Now, yes the President is driven by daily, current events, but it’s that long term thinking that we’re gonna need from a [00:23:30] governor. Bob Graham was focused on the people of Florida, work days, and middle America, and blue-collar Floridians. He was quite a statesman, and he was a great governor. That’s a Democrat with a long term vision. So, you have Jeb Bush, Rick Scott, Bob Graham. Love them or hate them, regardless of party, had long term vision. Compare that to this kind of daily Tweet storm of Donald Trump, that’s what I hope we don’t have in the next governor.
Chris Cate: You mentioned [00:24:00] James Madison, the father of The Constitution, that’s the namesake of your organization. I certainly hear on the news and social media that The Constitution is under attack. Do you feel like The Constitution is under attack right now, any more than it has been in the past?
Dr. Bob McClure: I think it would be easy to say, that The Constitution is under greater attack today than it was in the past. I think at some level, that’s probably true. [00:24:30] But, I think it has been kind of a long, slow, call it decline, lack of emphasis, over several generations. You know, when you’re … it’s the old adage of shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in 3 generations, when they talk about wealth. Right? So, the first generation makes it. The second generation wakes up and says, “Hey, I’ve got all this money.” [00:25:00] They spend it. The third either finishes spending what’s left, or their back to having to start to make it again, right? So, when you’re comfortable as this nation has been, the natural inclination for humanity is to take things for granted, forget about things, and I think it’s been kind of this long, slow precipitous decline. Which leads to a sense of ignorance, in the sense that people aren’t really taught The Constitution, they aren’t really taught civics a whole [00:25:30] lot more.
You know, we have a huge program at JMI devoted just to teaching middle, high school, and college kids civics, civic engagement, checks and balances, how does your government work. So, I think you’ve seen this long, slow decline because we were such a nation of prosperity and peace, for the most part not always, but post World War 2, that people just kind of forgot about The Constitution. Is it under more attack today, cable [00:26:00] news would certainly make you feel that way. But, I think the greater danger is that the next generation … and hopefully there’s been a reawakening over the last 5 years, I’ve sensed it anecdotally some more of a concern for it. But, I think the greater danger is will succeeding generations value The Constitution the way previous generations did.
Chris Cate: I’ll transition now to the last 4 questions we ask every guest. It’s kind [00:26:30] of a speed round, if you will. The first of these questions is who is a Florida leader that you admire?
Dr. Bob McClure: Current Florida leader?
Chris Cate: Current, past, whomever you like.
Dr. Bob McClure: I think that Mary McLeod Bethune is kind of a prototypical leader of what … [00:27:00] she not only is a Floridian, what she did with Bethune College, and serving on the quote Black Cabinet end quote, of FDR and the list goes on, and on, and on. She is the kind of … she’s the American Dream. Overcoming the throws of segregation, not using her circumstances [00:27:30] as an excuse, to build such a special school, to do so much for young African American children in a world that was hostile. So hostile to equality. So, I have this great admiration and affection for Mary McLeod Bethune because she did it without government assistance. You know, she raised private monies to build schools and churches, and do all of those kinds of programs [00:28:00] for people like that. So, there are so many but certainly Mary McLeod Bethune would be one Floridian that to me, stands out as the prototype for our state.
Chris Cate: What person, place or thing do you think deserves more attention in Florida?
Dr. Bob McClure: Florida at the national level gets such a bad rap, right? Most reports are on weird Florida. Even Hanging Chads [00:28:30] is somehow weird Florida. Or, you know, gifs or memes on the largest alligator crossing a cross … you know, it looks like a dragon. To me the state of Florida, the American Dream can be found in the state of Florida. Cuban citizens, jumping on a boat, and washing ashore in Miami. [00:29:00] People in Cuba who were lawyers, who come here and become dishwashers because they want a better opportunity. Fifth, sixth generation Floridians whose families were here in the 1800’s when there was just water, and mosquitoes, and snakes, and a few runaway slave, and Native American tribes. The kind of migration of North-easterners and Mid-westerners [00:29:30] here for a better life. To me, what gets lost in all the weird Florida stuff, which is hilarious, I agree I’m a fifth generation Floridian I love that stuff, is that Florida is the prototypical example of the American Dream. And it doesn’t matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter whether your male or female, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, and it’s not something anybody designed. [00:30:00] There was no master puppeteer. And I think that gets lost, and I wish even more Floridians understood and knew about it. You know, I have a great friend who is form Texas. Wherever he goes, he takes the Texas flag, right?
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bob McClure: I think Florida is so unique, that Floridians in some way should feel that same way about the Florida fag, that Texans do about the Texas flag.
Chris Cate: Yeah, I absolutely agree. [00:30:30] Last few questions. What’s your favorite Florida place for you to visit?
Dr. Bob McClure: I have two really, and they’re kind of generally speaking. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico, and so, anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico I love to go. It can be Naples Fort Meyers, it can be Panama City, it can be Pensacola, I mean it doesn’t matter. It could be Sopchoppy, it just doesn’t matter. I love the culture. I love the food. [00:31:00] I love the music. I love the water. Anywhere with the Gulf of Mexico is great. The other one I love is very similar to that, and it’s probably why I love anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico, I love Old Florida. I love Steinhatchee. Chiefland. You know, different places in Polk County. I love getting out of the large cities that I have to work in so much, and go to Wimauma. [00:31:30] Right? Or go to these areas of Old Florida that are to me so unique, and so special. So, Gulf of Mexico and Old Florida, I would say.
Chris Cate: Great, and last question. What’s your favorite Florida sports team?
Dr. Bob McClure: Ha ha ha. Well, I’m a product of my family and I’m a product of my DNA, and so I was born and raised a Florida Gator. Have been going down there since I was about 4 years old. Some of your listeners will love that, some of them will hate it. [00:32:00] But, I do have degrees from FSU and Florida both. So, being a product of my family, my DNA, I was raised a Florida Gator.
Chris Cate: You don’t have to apologize for it.
Dr. Bob McClure: Thank you, thank you.
Chris Cate: Thanks so much for being on the show.
Dr. Bob McClure: Chris, thanks for having me.
Chris Cate: Great.
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