Governor Crist is a man without a party. A senior statesman he is not, nor is he the political opportunist that some claim. Crist, whose political career has been so carefully orchestrated and plotted for over twenty years is literally afloat at sea now without compass as to where he is going. Perhaps he wants it that way, but if his DNC speech was an attempt to steer his ship cleanly in one direction it did not achieve that aim. Crist has always been more independent than many gave him credit for, but by hitching his wagon to a party whose activists clearly do not trust him, and trying to revise the Reagan legacy, he did little to enhance his electoral prospects on Thursday.
For years Crist seemed so programmed, so assured of himself and so confident in his public posture. Every move was carefully planned and his alliances while constantly shifting were generally developed with his long term goals in mind. But today Crist has no plan, little direction and Thursday night he showed a lack of confidence that I have never seen from him.
The content of his speech was decent, and his delivery as always was excellent, though lacking in any sort of real passion. But Crist lacked that sparkle that I have seen in him since the early 1990s. Simply put, his message was confused and muddled. Even though he sold his lines, he wasn’t particularly well received in the hall and it becomes more obvious that his next political move is not clear. His attempts to portray himself as disaffected Reagan Republican do not add up. While Crist may have been inspired to public service by Reagan and he may actually have called himself a “Reagan Republican” (the most overused term in the modern GOP) he really wasn’t ever a true conservative except when he was running in GOP primaries. Moreover, Crist’s commentary about Reagan was as disingenuously revisionist as that of the Republicans. They overstate Reagan’s conservatism while Crist completely oversold Reagan’s moderation. Crist has long been at the odds with the conservative wing of the GOP (except when running in GOP primaries) that sees Reagan as a folk hero, and trying to tie himself to Reagan may have been helpful to President Obama’s “swing” voter strategy, but didn’t help Crist much in the hall.
Furthermore it was perplexing to hear Crist refer to Jeb Bush as “my friend.” Bush has never been particularly close to Crist. In fact many of his top operatives were in both 2002 and 2006 eager to see Crist defeated in GOP Primaries. In both elections, Crist beat them back, which was good news for Floridians but bad news for Jeb Bush.
As Attorney General Crist didn’t work as well with Bush as Democrat Bob Butterworth had. You see, in-spite of the caricature Lenny Curry and the RPOF are trying to paint in their statewide propaganda campaign, Crist has never fit cleanly in a box, even though he has often called himself a “conservative,” he never really was. But he certainly isn’t a liberal either, but is a populist, but populists have historically had to reinvent themselves to stay politically relevant.
The Georgian Tom Watson went from populist hero in 1896 that courted poor black voters to vicious race-baiter and supporter of Jim Crow by 1905. Pat Buchanan went from Cold Warrior to isolationist bordering on anti-Semite in quick order. John Edwards was the most recent major populist on the American scene and we all see what has happened to him. What will Charlie Crist do? Perhaps we got a hint in this speech with the emphasis on senior issues.
As a Floridian, Crist could become a champion of seniors or simply someone who bashes Republicans at every turn. But neither will get him the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2014. He could continue as a lawyer in one of Florida’s biggest firms, but for someone whose public posture has long kept him going, that would be tantamount to retirement.
Or Crist could make his conversion look more genuine by sitting out a cycle, continuing his work of 2012 where he is helping Democratic candidates and look at 2016 or beyond. Marco Rubio is a national rock star, but Crist could rehabilitate himself in alliance with the Democrats and prove to be a giant killer if he got a clean shot at Florida’s ideologically motivated junior senator. 2010 was a wipe-out year for Democrats nationally, and Rubio’s election was plainly a fluke. In modern times, Florida has never elected someone to the US Senate as conservative as Rubio and if he doesn’t give up his seat to run for President, Crist’s best opportunity to return to office could be a rematch.
Rubio like John Edwards did in 2004, may realize his election was a fluke and will use his national stardom to seek the Presidency rather than risk losing his national profile by being defeated for re-election. That would give Crist a clean shot at the Senate seat he has twice previously sought.
Crist’s best bet is to sit out the 2014 election cycle, and focus on 2016. I have no doubt that Crist can be an asset to the Democrats despite what many activists think. But the process has to be gradual and the conversion must look more genuine. Thursday’s speech did little to further this process, but perhaps the next few months will tell a different tale.