Florida Democrats: Welcome Charlie Crist into your hearts

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I remember when I first heard the name Charlie Crist in the summer of 2006.

I had started paying close attention to politics in the months leading up to the 2006 midterms, and with some help from the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball I was getting daily updates on the battle for control of Congress and 39 governorships.

Checking in on the polls that summer was a joy for a young partisan like me because they gave me so much to be happy about; the GOP was everywhere on the run as Democrats romped to victory by seizing control of both chambers of Congress and picking up six statehouses from Republicans. But one man managed to buck the blue tide with an R next to his name, and I was disappointed to see him take the top job in the nation’s biggest swing state as Democrats swept races almost everywhere else.

Charlie Crist working the crowd. (Facebook photo)
Charlie Crist working the crowd. (Facebook photo)

It would turn out to be more than a one-time disappointment for a young nerd like me. In the months that followed, Charlie Crist would take office and follow through with an agenda that would earn him sky-high approval ratings from Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike.

I can still remember reading a Politico article sometime in 2007 that described the acclaim he was receiving, and wondering with a little trepidation whether he was the man who could possibly rescue the GOP for 2008. I remember rooting for his numbers to tick down just a little, until I eventually became used to seeing them remaining stubbornly sky-high.

It was a time, after all, when the Electoral College seemed to be balanced on a knife’s edge…and here was a young Republican governor who seemed to have the must-win swing state wrapped around his little finger.

It was one reason Charlie Crist was placed on the short list to be John McCain’s running mate. As the race heated up in the summer of 2008, Crist was topping 60 percent approval in Florida polls, and he could have delivered its 27 electoral votes for McCain while also allowing the Republicans to take a pass on the expensive Florida media markets and save precious campaign cash for the other battlegrounds. Crist himself revealed that he would have liked to be chosen, but being on the short list is no longer necessarily a point of pride.

“Whenever my ego gets too big,” he jokes, “Carol reminds me that John McCain took a look at me and went with Sarah Palin.”

And yet the fact that he was on the short list at all in 2008 is a poignant reminder of how far he had yet to fall. He maintained his eye-popping numbers even as Florida felt the lash of recession in 2008 and 2009, and even maintained his support among the Republican base while he made plenty of moves that made the elite uncomfortable. I still remember being pleasantly surprised in 2008 when Crist defied his party bigwigs’ advice and issued an executive order to extend voting hours in Florida, a move that was seen as beneficial to Democrats.

Crist and McCain. Did he blow it for McCain?
Crist and McCain. Did he blow it for McCain?

“In Florida,” Keith Olberman thundered, “a rare case of a Republican governor extending voting hours…is he just being a good governor?”

It was a move that caused some griping by both state and national Republicans.

“He just blew the election for McCain,” one McCain adviser fumed.

A young Miami state lawmaker, Marco Rubio, also had some reservations about the order.

And I can remember my disappointment in early 2009 when it became clear that Crist would run for the Senate seat in Florida. He’d be a near-invincible candidate to ensure a Republican hold, it was clear, and sure enough John Cornyn’s RNCC endorsed his candidacy a mere 14 minutes after he declared.

Those had to be some glorious days for Charlie Crist. He was a powerful executive of a mega state, and a rising star who was already talked about as having a national future.

Which begs the question: when he threw his hat into the ring for the Senate, what on earth was he thinking?

It’s true, he was a prohibitive favorite at the time. No one in either party seriously doubted he’d sail to victory in both the primary and the general election, and while he did have one primary opponent, he was seen as such a long-shot that he was rumored to be discreetly prepping to switch over to another race.

But even assuming an easy victory, who wants to trade the chance to be governor of Florida for the privilege of being a freshman senator, one of a hundred, in a dysfunctional legislature? Maybe Crist thought that federal office would enhance his national stature; maybe he liked the idea of running for reelection every six years rather than four. Whatever the reason, it has to rank as the worst political move of the 2010 season.

The GOP didn't take too kindly to Crist thanking Obama.
The GOP didn’t take too kindly to Crist  being nice to President Obama. (Public Domain Screenshot)

Or maybe the second worst—Crist would have been assured of victory even in this boneheaded decision if it hadn’t been for one mistake. In February 2009 he was caught on videotape being decent to the President of the United States, making remarks to a crowd in Fort Myers that were supportive of the President’s stimulus package. In closing, he even went in for a light one-armed hug as the President walked forward. It was a move, he later wrote, that “ended my career as a viable Republican for federal office.”

It provided his Republican primary opponent, Marco Rubio, with a devastating visual. To the far right, the hug came to symbolize everything they had come to resent about Charlie Crist. His penchant for going against the grain, which he had showed before when he extended voting hours against a Republican outcry. His appointment of the moderate Justice Perry to the state Supreme Court, which he had been warned by the party elite would tarnish his image with them forever. His moderate position on abortion, in which he had stated he “would rather change hearts than laws.” These were things, he wrote later on, that earned him something in GOP circles that he called “the look.”

Extend voting hours?

Restore voting rights for former felons?

Appoint this man over a card-carrying conservative?

You’re going to do all of this to us? Really?

Crist at election night. (Courtesy Facebook)
Crist at election night. (Courtesy Facebook)

Of course, Crist also had done plenty of things that Republicans in Florida should have been able to fully get behind, at least in theory. For all the furor caused by his nomination of a moderate judge, he had also appointed two unambiguous conservatives. He had worked to place on the ballot a proposition to slash property taxes. And in the most important appointment of his career, he nominated a stand-in to full the late Sen. Martinez’s vacancy who proved himself to be able to rage against big government with the best of them.

Jeb Bush, Crist’s predecessor, summed up the buyer’s remorse that state Republicans were feeling. Crist, he said, was a nice guy “just about the nicest guy I’ve known in politics” who had done something that Bush called “unforgivable.” What was so unforgivable of Crists’ record, Bush explained, was his embrace of a stimulus package that was nothing more than a spending bill designed to promote a liberal agenda.

Of course, the reviled stimulus contained more than $200 billion in tax cuts, which historically should have done a lot to sweeten the deal for Republicans. But that detail must have been lost in translation from conservative talk radio and right-wing blogs, which labeled it as an atrocious spending bill by an out of control Washington.

Red State’s Erick Erickson named Crist as the Tea Party’s No. 1 target for defeat in the primaries, and unleashed his dogs on Senator Cornyn, whose committee had endorsed Crist for Senate. The phone calls and harassment of Cornyn’s office by Erickson’s readers got to be so bad that the powerful senator actually called Erickson at his Georgia home, asking him to let down, just a bit.

Erickson said no.

Rubio speaking at CPAC in 2010. (Wikipedia)
Rubio speaking at CPAC in 2010. (Wikipedia)

Instead, he and his allies in the right-wing media continued their campaign against Crist and a few others in the GOP. Their onslaught riled up conservative activists, pumped up Rubio’s poll numbers and eventually forced Charlie Crist to run as an independent for in the Senate race, no longer welcome in his old party. For so long he had seemed like a Teflon governor; seeing him be shunned by his own party felt about as natural as canceling the Beatles to book Spinal Tap instead.

Keeping up with the saga for a few minutes every day from my laptop, I had to wonder why it was happening. Could the people who had signed on for the $2 trillion Iraq war really have such a jihad against a guy who had embraced $650 billion for America’s schools, bridges and hospitals, along with those historic tax cuts?

After following GOP primaries for a while, I have a theory.

When figures like President Nixon and Lee Atwater pushed the GOP in the direction of the southern strategy and the culture wars, it was a winning move for a while. Fear and anger are great motivators in politics, and by playing on cultural fears they were able to build a coalition that deprived Democrats of the presidency for 20 of 24 years. Fear was the product that they peddled; we are going to be the ones to stop these people from taking your money, your guns, from forcing your church to recognize this sort of marriage. The elites who look down on you and want to change your community and way of life will have to get through us first.

When times are bad, the rage is set on high. In the months and years after the twin towers fell that Americans spent in fear of the possibility of another shoe falling, the “us against them” narrative was promoted by every conservative news outlet.

Even with their man of choice in the White House and a like-minded majority in the nation’s highest court, a grievance is always around to air. Affirmative action, so-called “welfare queens” the creeping assault of judicial activism—which really just means liberal activism, conservative activists are perfectly welcome—are all patterns of a larger conspiracy to threaten what is good in America.

FederalDeficit(1)When times are good…the rage is way higher.

Reading about how things were in the ’90s, I could never understand the vitriol that was directed at Bill Clinton, a guy who balanced the budget—unlike every president since Eisenhower–and ushered in an extraordinary period of economic growth, or at the very least advanced policies which didn’t prevent it.

But during an administration in which the Dow tripled in value, the country was at peace and the economy added 22 million jobs the neocons still found reasons to be at war with him, both before and after anyone had heard of Monica Lewinski. When the vote to remove him from office failed, he saw an animosity from some of the Republicans in Congress that ran deeper than ordinary dislike and disagreement. The prevailing mood was that he had gotten away with something, that the justice system had failed to hold him accountable to suffer a fate he so richly deserved. What it was exactly that they thought he’d gotten away with after all of the pain, humiliation and legal bills ran their course is a mystery to me.

Despite being a white Southern Protestant, Clinton just wasn’t one of them. And the biracial Chicago lawyer from urban America who looked like he had never fired a gun in his life wasn’t either. George Bush could run up massive deficits, but any spending bill coming from Barack Obama was nothing more than ruinous deficit spending.

Completely shut out of power and reeling from the Bush hangover, the GOP base could inveigh against the latest enemy of liberty seven days a week, but that was all they could do to his party until November. But why wait 22 months to fire people at the ballot box? All of the outrage needed an outlet.

Earlier this year a group of Tea Party-affiliated protesters disrupted a book signing by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (D), calling the former Republican a “commie whore” and shouting that he “looks like an AIDS victim.” (Screeenshot)
Earlier this year a group of Tea Party-affiliated protesters disrupted a book signing by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (D), calling the former Republican a “commie whore” and shouting that he “looks like an AIDS victim.” (Screeenshot)

Cue to the Tea Party and Republican primaries. If the Tea Party couldn’t punish Obama’s Democrats immediately, they could at least take out some anger on moderate Republicans, sending the message that they were mad, powerful and potent. And that’s what they did to Charlie Crist and a few other Republicans who had shown signs of wanting to cooperate with the President of the United States.

It’s a rage that continues to this day. It’s become the case where in GOP primaries, having a conservative record isn’t enough. You have to be like the base is, feel like they do, prove that their fury is your fury if you hope to advance to the general election with the party’s blessing.

Jeb Bush said it best in an unguarded moment: Ronald Reagan would have a hard time being nominated in today’s GOP. It’s a line Charlie Crist repeats on the campaign trail, with what I imagine to be a repressed smile.

“You know, my good friend Jeb Bush even said that today’s Republican Party wouldn’t have nominated Reagan. It’s just moved that far to the hard right.”

A lot has been written about Charlie Crist and what he believes. There are some legitimate questions about how much of his conversion is just political expediency, and how much is genuine. He says he hasn’t changed, only his party label has changed.


But in one sense, it really doesn’t matter. The most important questions for Florida aren’t about whether Crist was a good Republican, or whether he’ll be a good Democrat. The election isn’t about him or even the political status quo in Florida so much as it is about the fate of the two party system and the nature of politics in America. When one of our major parties has gone bonkers, what better message could we send the partisan purists than to take their excommunicated son and make him a successful standard bearer?

So I hope Floridians rally around this man and go to the polls for him in November. He’ll be a vast improvement to the current Medicare crook who has made it this far in life thanks to his $100 million war chest and familiarity with the Fifth Amendment. But even more importantly, a Crist election can be the message that we’ve all been hoping for: extremist insanity has an expiration date in politics.