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Florida governor Charlie Crist is the saddest of political spectacles — an opportunist running out of opportunities.
His relentless rise through Florida politics — from state senator to education commissioner to attorney general to the governorship he wants to leave for the U.S. Senate — petered out in the Republican primary, with conservative upstart Marco Rubio drubbing him by a roughly two-to-one margin in the polls.
Crist could have bowed out gracefully, except it would have required entirely too much grace. He has declared himself an independent and will fight a three-way race against Rubio and Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek in the fall. Along with fellow GOP apostate Arlen Specter, Crist is waging the revolt of the principleless. In a year of conviction politics, he seeks to forge a glorious cause out of his sheer impatience for another promotion.
Crist recently made such Shermanesque denials of any intention to run as an independent that William Tecumseh Sherman himself might have believed him. His campaign manager told reporters in an e-mail, “To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Gov. Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican.” He should have added: As long as it suits his self-interest.
The seeds of Crist’s destruction in the Republican primary were sown in February 2009, when he hugged Pres. Barack Obama at an event in Fort Myers and endorsed the stimulus. The common thread of Crist’s career is a taste for fashionable causes, and both Obama and the stimulus were popular then. By November 2009, the politics had changed. “I didn’t endorse it,” Crist said of the stimulus on CNN in a don’t-believe-your-lying-eyes moment. “I didn’t even have a vote on the darned thing.”
By then, the front-running Crist had reason to fear the upstart Rubio. At first, Crist implausibly said he was going to out-Reagan the Reaganite challenger. Then he switched to taking wild swings at Rubio on ethics. But the Florida GOP credit-card scandal that Crist used as fodder involves most directly his own hand-picked choice as chairman, the since-resigned Jim Greer.
Crist has always been popular for being popular, as one wag puts it. He had neither the loyal troops nor the compelling rationale necessary to beat an attractive underdog whose views perfectly match the rank-and-file’s tea-partyish mood. Crist decided to turn on his party, vetoing a GOP education-reform bill after saying he’d support it. Now, he’ll insist that it’s the Republican party that left him.
Inevitably, Crist will be compared to Sen. Joe Lieberman, an insult to the Connecticut Democrat who ran as an independent after losing a primary in 2006. Lieberman staked his career on his support for the Iraq War. If it had been Crist, he would have switched his position on the war, and quit his party only if his gambit failed.
The governor has hardly been undone by witless extremists. Rubio is the former speaker of the state House. He’s a mainstream conservative who speaks compellingly about the future of the country, while Crist speaks compellingly about nothing. From the beginning, Rubio had the implicit support of former governor Jeb Bush, the gold standard in Florida Republican politics. As he spiraled downward, Crist lost even his mentor and campaign chairman, former senator U.S. Connie Mack, who couldn’t abide his education veto.
Crist has now been tempted into a desperation move. As Democratic consultant Steve Schale points out, Crist can win 25 percent of Republicans (highly improbable), 25 percent of Democrats (ditto) and 60 percent of independents (dream on), and still get only 31 percent of the vote, not enough to win. He’ll try to run against the system, a difficult trick when you occupy the governor’s mansion and your only objection to the system is that it no longer serves your purposes.
The GOP needs moderates, but not like this. Charlie Crist gives the brand a bad name.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.