While Republicans gather in Tampa for what should be a week of triumph, many local GOP leaders have gone off the deep end. Florida Republicans such as Lenny Curry, George LeMieux, Jack Latvala and others have felt compelled to attack Crist in the media while their attention should be on the GOP Convention. Rather than simply ignore Crist or ridicule him, they have chosen to elevate his credibility by attacking him.
All of this is bizarre, unless Republicans actually want to elevate Crist’s profile to the point where he becomes an issue in this election or the next. In the past when the Democrats have suffered high profile defections (and we’ve had more than a few) the tendency has been to downplay or avoid discussion of the defection. But the GOP, always so disciplined in their message, showed weakness this week on the Crist matter. Clearly multiple Florida Republicans were singing from the same song sheet, but why were they so obsessive about Crist? Barry Goldwater once admitted he put conservative Congressman William Miller (the father of liberal talk show host Stephanie Miller) on his 1964 ticket simply because “he drives LBJ nuts.” Despite my differences with Crist it’s hard not to like him because he drives Florida Republicans crazy.
It is entirely possible the GOP senses an opportunity and would prefer Crist be prominent and a divisive figure among Democrats. Perhaps the statements of the GOP leadership were aimed more at enraging Democrats about Crist and perhaps depressing Democratic enthusiasm than anything related to the former Governor himself. Or perhaps, bereft of any positive message in a convention week, the GOP needs a bogeyman. This time instead of unions, trail lawyers or welfare “queens” it is Charlie Crist.
Crist’s history is that of a political chameleon and a populist whose adroit political moves are typically one or two steps ahead of the opposition. This is not a revelation. What is interesting is that some of the Republicans attacking him have moved ideologically as well but have simply shifted right in order to placate their party. Take, for example, Senator Jack Latvala who said on Sunday “I believe that philosophies can change over a lifetime, but someone who has any kind of a core philosophy to start with doesn’t change 180 degrees.” This is interesting because Latvala was one of the most liberal Republicans in his first Senate stint (1994 to 2002) but since his return to the Senate in 2010 he has moved dramatically to the right in order to fulfill his ambition to be Senate President. Crist’s leftward shift from moderate conservative running as a Republican to Democratic supporting trial lawyer isn’t more dramatic than Latvala’s own conversion. Latvala himself would make a good Senate President considering the opposition, but his comment about Crist was disingenuous.
Charlie Crist’s record is a mixed one. He has shifted his views and rhetoric for political reasons. That is undeniable. A partisan and somewhat petty Republican hack in the 1990s, he turned into a populist in the 2000s until he decided to run for US Senate in 2009 as a Republican and he reverted to his 1990s self. So the policies Crist now advocate are not much different than his record as Attorney General or his first year and a half as Governor. But even when he veered in one direction there were traces of moderation always apparent. To partisan Democrats he was an attention grabbing contradiction, but to partisan Republicans he was always a bit of a loose cannon that could not be scripted and thus would best be disposed of.
As a State Senator he was all over the place. Petty partisan, but with a streak of modern Republican decisively opposing race baiting in his public support for the Pitts and Lee Compensation package and backing several critical Environmental initiatives that are opposed by today’s GOP. In 1996 he helped lead the Republican opposition to Governor Chiles landmark lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry and then a year later, Crist conducted another partisan witch hunt, this time against the attorneys who bravely represented the state in the Tobacco Lawsuit. In a twist of irony, some of those same lawyers became political allies of the more moderate 2000s version of Crist, and now he is part of their ilk.
In 1998, he wisely challenged unbeatable Democratic Senator Bob Graham but used the race to get his name out. In 2000, he ran for an office that was being abolished within two years, Commissioner of Education in order to further his name ID statewide. It was in that race, while running several counties for the Democratic nominee George Sheldon, I observed Crist’s unique qualities on the stump and one on one with voters. Previously, I had been highly tainted by the Tallahassee crowd I worked with, many of whom viewed Crist as a perennial lightweight and in some cases a comedy figure. That same crowd mocked Crist’s Attorney General credentials noting he had failed the Florida Bar exam multiple times and that the establishment GOP primary candidates (Senator Locke Burt and Solicitor General Tom Warner) were more qualified to be the state’s top law enforcement officer. Crist beat both of them (as well as large portions of the GOP establishment) and Democratic nominee Buddy Dyer handily, demonstrating incredible political skill and an uncanny grasp of voters concerns in the process. Fast forward to 2006, and many Bush loyalists displeased with Crist’s performance as Attorney General,( where he played populist and shifted positions frequently, in an office where the GOP wanted a partisan hack like Pam Bondi) opposed his nomination but he won both the primary and general election with ease.
With the Democrats suffering from a lack of a cohesive message over many years, perhaps Crist can help define an ideology. For the better part of 15 years a Democratic Party that in Florida lacks any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats. Crist perhaps can help the Democrats put a finger on the pulse of the voters. At the same time it is important Democrats back the candidates for office who are the most progressive. Moderation has gotten the Florida Democrats zero, which is why Crist’s potential conversion is a no-lose situation for the party.If he is truly becoming a progressive and wants to work to help defeat Republicans in Florida, perhaps he should sit out the 2014 cycle, get behind the statewide Democratic ticket and then get a clean shot at Marco Rubio in 2016, during a Presidential election year.
Simply put many Florida Democratic leaders do not understand the states’ voters and the need to formulate a positive policy agenda. In the period since 1998 when the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, the Democrats have held a significant statewide registration advantage. This is the worst record of any state east of the Mississippi. In recent years demographic shifts in the state have favored the Democrats, and made it more and more difficult for the Republicans to keep their statewide juggernaut going. Charlie Crist can only help the Democrats turn this around regardless of whatever baggage he may have and besides, he drives the Republicans nuts.