There is little doubt that Charlie Crist’s recent party switch to the Democrats is a prelude to a run to recapture his former role as Florida’s governor. Can (or should) progressive Democrats swallow hard, hold their nose, and get on board with a Democratic Crist? For Democrats, progressive activists in particular, there is great consternation that Crist is hardly the champion of its values, just a washed out, flip-flopping, ex-Republican. Hardly inspiring.
His record as a Republican showed him in his early legislative career as a first class hard liner who enjoyed the limelight of being known as “Chain Gang Charlie.” As Education Commissioner and later Insurance Commissioner, he developed a more populist attitude, earning the respect of educators and the ire of insurance companies while right wing Republicans began regarding him with considerable suspicion.
He bested more conservative challenger Tom Gallagher in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary by tacking to the right and declaring himself a “Ronald Reagan Republican,” winning the nomination and the office.
As Governor, his populism migrated to opportunism, noted in these pages as a weathervane and a chameleon for his willingness to switch positions and cater to prevailing political winds. His popularity with the electorate ultimately kept him as an asset to the GOP, even though the base came to thoroughly dislike and distrust him (with good reason).
Crist’s usually astute political moves were swamped by the extreme shift among Florida Republicans as the Tea Party surged following its 2010 ascendancy and rigid ideological fidelity became required in GOP ranks. Crist swung himself Gumby-like as far right as he could during his campaign for the US Senate, but he couldn’t distance himself from his past, most notably the infamous embrace of President Obama and his vocal support for the President’s fiscal stimulus legislation.
Marco Rubio’s upstart Senate candidacy surged, lifted by Tea Party loyals and other extremists for whom Rubio seemed to pass the ideological sniff test, even though Rubio has always maintained his distance from them. (Talk about an opportunist!) Facing a heavy GOP primary loss, Crist preemptively dropped the GOP and ran unsuccessfully as an independent.
His recent self-promotion as a new Democrat signals the start of the Democratic primary for governor. Polls show Crist favored over all likely contenders, particularly over Gov. Scott – not a great feat since even Republicans seem to favor a primary challenger to the ever unpopular Scott.
No one should expect Crist to hew to a consistently progressive line. Progressives tend to diss Crist in favor of those more ideologically defined like Sen. Nan Rich (pictured), former Sen. Dan Gelber, and others who remain completely unknown to Florida voters outside of their own circles.
The complaining noises about Crist from the camp of 2010 Dem loser Alex Sink have fallen flat. Sink ran away from Democratic positions in 2010 (literally; there was a video of Sink glaring icily at a reporter who persisted in asking about her stance on the health care bill before dashing/stalking off in a silent huff), she can hardly grouse about Crist not being enough of a Democrat. Sink lost to a crook, Rick Scott, presenting herself with a conservative message only a Republican could love (except she was out-conservatived by the Tea Party schmuck – what a shock) and blessed with yet another failed Tallahassee insider campaign plan that has yielded her almost no notoriety just 2 years later for a possible second run. Great job.
That she lost by a hair in a wave year for the Tea Party is small consolation. Scott was (and is still) a crook and a schmuck with a personality akin to the creepy robot HAL of Kubkrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scott has remained wildly unpopular with the electorate since his inauguration, and is even disliked within his own party. A worse major party candidate for governor is unlikely … ever.
While Republican operatives stew behind Scott’s back about finding a candidate who doesn’t suck and isn’t utterly loathsome, Democrats find themselves – apart from Crist – with the possibility of a recycled Sink and a bevy of potential unknowns statewide. Those lesser knowns generally have better progressive credentials than Sink or Crist, but any reasonable person would view them as unelectable against a modestly well known, well funded Republican.
If you dismiss the notion of watching Sink, who sank, sink again, and admit the severe electability limitations on the rest, then let’s recall the realpolitik directions of 1992, the DLC, and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. You’ll recall that Republicans had held the Oval Office for 12 years in dominating fashion. Albeit weakened, Bush, Sr. was game for another Mondale or Dukakis liberal. However, the moderate Clinton got the nod and eked the win. While gaining the presidency for the Dems, progressives can recount many painful concessions from the gutting of welfare to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Still, it was a Dem in the Oval Office.
Clinton, for all of his progressive faults, made Democrats electable at the national level once again, bringing closely competitive presidential races since. We forget just how crushing were the defeats of 1980, 1984 and 1988.
Could Crist supply an opportunity for Dems to gain the governorship, providing a Democratic executive counter weight to the Republican legislature, likely to remain theirs for the foreseeable future? Would having a moderate and, yes, unpredictably political animal like Crist elevate realistic Dem positions to serious consideration and force a retreat for the GOP legislature’s draconian agenda? Would having an official voice of moderation in Tallahassee help give Dem candidates greater credence, leveling the incline in competitive legislative districts? In short, can progressive Dems realistically expect to seize the governor’s mansion in one fell swoop, or is there a process that can begin unfolding with a Dem Gov, even Charlie Crist?
I’m thinking about it. What do you think?