Charlie Crist has changed parties, and this time he means it.
It’s now official. Just before the holidays, the tanned Florida politician enrolled as a Democrat, and his new party could not be more delighted. No, really, it is a wonderful surprise.
Democrats across the state have welcomed the former governor with all the enthusiasm reserved for the news that your mother-in-law has just arrived, not for supper but for a nice long visit. There she is on the front stoop, not clutching a bouquet for the dining table but flanked on both sides by bulging suitcases. There’s nothing to be done but to force a grin and holler over your shoulder, “Honey, tell the boys to clean out their room and take the sleeping bags up to the attic — Mama’s here.”
State senator Nan Rich is sticking to the script. Already testing the waters for the Democratic nomination for governor, she has a ready reply when asked what she thinks of Crist’s arrival. ’Swonderful, says Rich. She’s lying, of course. A saucy liberal who has paid her party dues and then some, Rich has to be saying to herself as she eye-frisks Crist, I didn’t know they could pile it that high.
Well, what about Alex Sink, the former CFO who lost the 2010 gubernatorial race to Republican Rick Scott by a false eyelash — what’s her take on Crist as Democrat? ’Swonderful, says Sink. She’s lying, too. She has to be thinking, I’ve got an unpopular incumbent on the run and now this? Who invited Mr. Perma-Tan?
Let’s not forget Florida’s own Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who plays a recurring role on MSNBC as a poodle-haired, fact-challenged partisan. What’s her take? ’Swonderful, says Wasserman Schultz. Is she lying, too? Hard to tell. She may be the first public figure since Bill Clinton who can look down the barrel of a camera and say things that aren’t necessarily so, without betraying the slightest voice break, facial tic, or runaway eyebrow. It’s a neat party trick. And, with nobody able to tell when she’s telling the truth, the default assumption in most circumstances is that she’s not.
But even in the Democratic party, by now fully data mined and Obamacized, not everyone gets the memo. Here’s the reaction to Crist’s enrollment from Barbara Effman, the leader of a powerful Democratic club in Broward County (which, with almost 2 million residents, is the 18th most populous county in the nation): “A lot of people don’t trust him. He didn’t want to be a Republican, and then he didn’t want to be an independent, and now that he’s been a Democrat for a few days, he thinks he can be governor?” Oops. It sounds as if Ms. Effman might have skipped out on reeducation camp last summer. There she goes, gaffe-ward, sounding as unprogrammed as a real human being.
On the basis of a dozen sotto voce conversations, I can report that Ms. Effman is saying what many and perhaps most party workers are thinking. Hard-core Democrats have campaigned against Charlie Crist for state senate, for education commissioner, for attorney general, for governor, and for U.S. Senate; some of them have 20 years in the trenches against him. They have gotten to know him well, and they’ve learned that to know him well is not necessarily to regard him as a man of unshakable integrity.
Charlie Crist himself, refusing to be swayed by reports from his lying eyes and ears, has described his reception by Democrats as “overwhelmingly positive.” Not even close, Charlie. The current political forecast for him would be more accurately described as somewhere between “chilly” and “chance of overnight freeze.” (I allow for the possibility that Crist is simply confused, temporarily disoriented by the pace of his own political evolution. He’s been a “proud” Republican, a “proud” independent, and a “proud” Democrat, all in the space of three years. That’s a lot of pride, placed and replaced.)
I have been talking to Republicans who are planning their agenda for 2013. They don’t seem to be confused at all. Their response to Crist’s defection has been, to borrow the phrase, “overwhelmingly positive.” From the Georgia border to the Keys and from the Atlantic seashore to the Gulf Coast, Republicans are savoring a rare moment of unity. In their view, Crist committed one of the few political sins still generally regarded as unforgiveable in post-Clinton America: He raised money as a Reagan conservative and spent it as an Obama liberal in the same political cycle. Many of the GOP loyalists here in Orlando fell for Crist’s bait-and-switch move, and they are mad at him; and, yes, they are mad at themselves. They relish the possibility that Crist will now do unto Democrats pretty much as he did unto them.
The presumption on both sides of the aisle is that Crist will run for governor next year against Rick Scott, a presumption fortified by a recent poll showing Crist up 48–45 in a trial heat. That’s certainly possible. But that wouldn’t really be Crist-like, would it, a path forward in which purpose and effort are aligned so conventionally? Let’s take an imaginative leap and suppose that Crist is looking at the situation from a consumingly selfish perspective.
Here’s what we know. First, when Crist held the office himself, just two years ago, he was bored silly and made an exit strategy one of the first orders of gubernatorial business. Second, the best part of any Crist campaign, for both candidate and voter, is the tease. In that sense, Crist has already peaked. Now come the long months of hard work, any appetite for which Crist has disguised comprehensively. Third, Tallahassee, the Albany of the American South, is an acquired taste, and there are persistent rumors that the new Mrs. Crist has yet to acquire it. Fourth, Scott has spread the word that he’s prepared to spend $50 million of his own money in an air war that could muss anybody’s hair. (Threats of this sort, empty in most cases, are credible coming from Scott.) Why, then, the tease? Why would Charlie Crist appear to be running for governor?
Here’s my surmise, based, I confess, not on exclusive revelation but on multiple seasons of bemused Crist-watching: What would be highly attractive to him, not to mention to the missus, would be a high-visibility, low-responsibility appointed position. Lots of ink, lots of tube time, short office hours — that sort of thing. Not in Tallahassee, most likely, but in Washington or even in the world beyond.
Well, then, why not just ask his pal the president for a job, rather than head-faking toward a 2014 campaign? Charlie Crist doesn’t ask for favors. He accepts them. He may have reckoned that his endorsement of Obama, punctuated by the abject groveling at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, would excite a big-time offer from a gratefully reelected administration. No such luck, it appears. So Crist is making his own luck. By galvanizing Rich, Sink, and other high-powered Floridians who delivered the state for Obama and who now want Crist removed from the gubernatorial race, he has assembled a formidable lobbying organization for . . . Charlie Crist. A big-time offer just might materialize.
That’s my position, anyway, and in the spirit of Charlie Crist, I’m sticking with it until something better comes along.
— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.