Charlie Crist’s Moment in the Sun
His veto of an education-reform bill has shaken up Florida's politics -- and the nation's.


Neal B. Freeman

All in all, it was a Charlie Crist kind of week. In the span of five business days, the governor managed to sandbag his legislative allies, embarrass his predecessor, alienate his mentor, rile his campaign staff, solidify his new base in the teachers’ union, and win oodles of media attention, much of it glowing with fresh esteem. By vetoing the education-reform bill he had promised only weeks earlier to support, he seemed to be growing in office at a pace agreeable even to the New York Times: On Friday, the paper published a three-column, front-page story on the Crist veto, jumped inside across another four columns — the full boy-mauls-pit-bull treatment. When was the last time the Times lavished so much coverage on a legislative dust-up in Tallahassee? The correct answer, I’m pretty sure, would be “never.”

There are still moments in national life, it must be said, when the New York Times is indispensable. This was not one of them. In searching for the bedrock principle upon which Governor Crist had planted his headline-grabbing decision, the Times was embarked on a journalist’s errand more foolish than promising. Charlie Crist doesn’t do bedrock principle. He is the kind of man who, when he looks you in the eye and announces that he “firmly support[s] education reform,” makes you muse to yourself, “I wonder what he meant by that?” I have described the governor elsewhere as a man of no fixed ideological address. That estimate, in sober hindsight, seems generous.

At the beginning of last week, polls confirmed the general surmise that the governor is running well behind his opponent in the GOP Senate primary, former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio. A subsequent poll, this one from the widely quoted Quinnipiac organization, reported that Crist, running as an independent, would be leading in a hypothetical three-way race against Republican Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. When on Thursday Crist vetoed the education bill — which had been inspired by former governor Jeb Bush, endorsed by Crist campaign chair Connie Mack, and passed, at considerable political risk, by Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature — veteran Crist-watchers leapt to the conclusion: Charlie must be preparing to leave the GOP and run for the Senate as an independent. (I should state for the record that the governor has vowed repeatedly, including on national television, that he will run only as a Republican and not as an independent. Cristologists regard such vows as less than dispositive.)

A defection from the party is certainly possible. The governor has until April 30 to make his decision, and the intervening fortnight, an agony for the GOP, will be springtime for Charlie Crist, by which I mean that the air will be filled with talk of Charlie Crist, a prospect more pleasing to the famously tanned governor even than an afternoon charbroiling in the Florida sun. (As a publicity hound, it is conceded on all sides, Crist is world-class, registering a rare 10 on the Schumer Scale.)