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.)
A few Crist supporters contend that his “statesmanlike” act in vetoing the bill will galvanize his GOP primary campaign. Not likely, but possible, I suppose, if the unions can engineer a mass crossover of their members to the Republican party. But there are other possibilities for Crist’s future, including a sinecure in the Educational-Industrial Complex to be delivered in due course by a grateful establishment, or even a jump to the Democrats if Congressman Meek could be persuaded to accept alternative employment. Would it even be all that shocking if, between them, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod could cook up an enticing offer in the nation’s capital, or in somebody else’s capital? When it comes to Charlie Crist, sadly, you get the sense that the floor is open for bids.
What’s at stake here, if one can get beyond gubernatorial vanity? At the micro level, a lost opportunity of some magnitude. The reform bill would have addressed two of the most critical challenges facing Florida schools — lifetime tenure for teachers in their 20s and the absence of standards for teacher performance. The GOP bill would have introduced sensible, incremental reform on both counts. Thanks to Jeb Bush and a few tough-minded legislators, the battle had been won, the unions beaten. Thanks to Charlie Crist, the reform initiative is probably dead for this year and quite possibly for all time.
The stakes are higher still on the macro, or national, level. It is now understood across the political spectrum that from an electoral standpoint, Florida has become the new California. For several decades, from early Nixon to late Reagan, the GOP could get to the White House only by tying down California and then moving east. With California now reliably Democratic, the arithmetic for the GOP has become even more tightly calibrated: The only way to crack the Electoral College combination is to tie down Florida and then move north and west. It is thus with high expectation from Democrats and raw apprehension from Republicans that the political class has fixed its gaze on Charlie Crist: Is he, answering whatever careerist demon now drives him, in the process of dismantling the Republican party, his party, in the nation’s most important battleground state?
Crist seems to have caught the president’s attention, too. Barack Obama, who may need Florida every bit as much as George W. Bush did, brought the traveling White House down here again last week. It was Obama’s fourth political trip to the state since he took office only 15 months ago. He did a big-bucks fundraiser in Miami, $30,000 a couple. Much of the high-priced talk, I’m told, was about Florida politics, most of it giddy.
– Neal B. Freeman, a National Review contributor, covers politics from Jacksonville.