Politics & Policy

The Fallible Crist

Since entering the Senate race, Florida's governor has made one bad call after another.

Presuming the sources of Fox News are right, Florida governor Charlie Crist will run for the Senate as an independent.

You don’t get to be governor of Florida without a halfway decent sense of political judgment, and in fact that’s supposed to be one of Crist’s best qualities: He may not be the boldest or most principled politician, but he’s always been popular and displayed a knack for staying on the right side of Florida voters, going back to his “Chain Gang Charlie” days. That good sense of what voters want drove him from one public office to the next: Florida state senator, state education commissioner, state attorney general, and finally governor.

Yet during this election cycle, Crist’s keen judgment disappeared and was replaced with the bumbling instincts of some of our most legendary modern political blunderers (think Martha Coakley, Creigh Deeds, and John Kerry). Almost every key decision made by Crist and his campaign since entering the Senate race has backfired. Consider the following:

(1) How did he get blindsided by Rubio? Race watchers outside Florida have an excuse for not recognizing Marco Rubio, as he was barely known outside of Miami and Tallahassee. But Rubio was speaker of the Florida house for the first two years of Crist’s governorship. You’d think the governor would have a sense of whether one of the state’s other GOP leaders had charisma, a knack for retail politics, and ability on the stump.

(2) Why hasnt he come up with a simple, clear, easily understood answer as to why hes leaving the governorship and running for the Senate? Most politicians would give their non-bill-signing arm to be governor of a swing state. (In 2008, Republican presidential contenders wooed Crist in hopes of winning his endorsement.) It guarantees lots of media attention, you’re always mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate, and nobody wants to cross you (at least until you make your endorsement, as Rudy Giuliani demonstrated to Crist). But Crist is leaving one powerful job for another powerful job, and the reason has never been quite clear enough.

In his initial announcement of his Senate bid as a Republican, Crist offered some cookie-cutter talk about putting partisanship aside: “Here in Florida, we’ve shown that when we put people first and work together much can be accomplished, and I intend to bring that same approach to Washington.”

This passage from a 2008 Crist profile by NR’s John J. Miller lays the groundwork for an ungenerous theory about the governor’s eagerness to leave his current job:

Yet storm clouds loom on the horizon, thanks to Crist’s other actions. “He socialized our state’s insurance market,” says Dennis Ross, a Republican state representative. “He’s doing everything he can to run insurance companies out of Florida.” One of the hottest political issues of 2006, when Crist was in the thick of his governor’s race, involved insurance premiums. They were shooting up because companies were paying out so much in the aftermath of those hurricanes. “Rates were going through the roof,” says the governor. “We experienced price gouging. I’m a consumer advocate. I fight for the little guy. Sometimes big business can be as bad as big government and become arrogant, sloth-like, and detrimental.”

To address the problem, Crist imposed de facto price controls that have turned the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, essentially a state agency, into Florida’s largest provider of homeowner’s insurance. Several other measures have also hobbled market forces. “This plan violates every principle of actuarial soundness,” says a prominent Florida Republican. The result is that taxpayers are now on the hook if a violent tempest slashes its way across the state in the next few years. “This is a huge gamble,” says Eli Lehrer of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.

Since geography suggests that a major hurricane hitting Florida is just a matter of time, could it be that Crist wants to leave the governor’s office before his insurance policies blow up?

(3) Why did he go negative so quickly? Earlier this month, the Rubio campaign charged that “Charlie Crist is spending more than a million dollars on TV, every penny of it is negative, and he has yet to offer a single positive idea about what he would do in the U.S. Senate. He is doing a disservice to every Republican who wants a strong and united party committed to victory in November. But given that Charlie Crist may soon be leaving the Republican Party, he probably doesn’t care much about that anymore.”

Yes, well-known candidates often go negative on their lesser-known opponents in order to define them early and drive up their negatives. And yes, as the sitting governor, the Crist campaign presumed that the public already knew their candidate and already knew how it felt about him. But Crist didn’t even release a standard-issue ad explaining to Floridians why he was running for his new federal job.

The messages of Crist’s campaign, both in advertising and the top headlines on his website, are strikingly devoid of details about what he would do as a senator. A campaign can always use testimonials about how swell a guy the candidate is; but in the end, voters need a reason to prefer one candidate over the other, and usually that comes in the form of a pledge to enact certain policies. On a related note . . .

(4) Why is he running on his résumé in an anti-incumbent year? In nine cycles out of ten, Charlie Crist could make all of these errors and count on the power of incumbency to overcome any younger, more charismatic challenger. (See Arlen Specter’s narrow win over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania in 2004, Lincoln Chafee’s win over Steve Laffey in Rhode Island in 2006, and Lindsey Graham’s win over Buddy Witherspoon in South Carolina in 2008.)

In this cycle, though, the public’s mood is considerably different. Voters got mad after TARP, were outraged by the stimulus, and are now beside themselves about health care. They don’t want to hear about long records in public office and past positions on appointed boards; they may not even be interested in talk of bipartisan cooperation and reaching across the aisle. Many conservative Republicans want to hear, “I’m as mad as you are about what’s going on in Washington, and if elected, I’ll do everything I can to stop it.”

Many Americans see Washington, D.C., as a national blight combining the high morals of late imperial Rome, the good character and widespread honesty of post–Cold War Moscow, the financial restraint of modern Athens, and the respectful modesty of Beijing — and Crist is running on the message that he can work well with everyone who’s already there.

(5) Why did he even try claiming he didn’t support the stimulus? Perhaps Crist’s chances in a GOP Senate primary were doomed the day he agreed to appear at a rally with President Obama as he touted the stimulus. In February 2009, this probably looked like a wise move; the new president was on top of the world, the stimulus was likely to pass anyway, and Crist could earn some points for bipartisanship and courtesy for showing up and hugging the president.

Of course, the popularity of the president who ran on a slogan of “change” ended up changing. With unemployment creeping up month by month, the stimulus became a symbol of government waste, borrowing too much to achieve too little and create too few jobs. Crist might have been able to finesse the issue a bit more by saying he hoped the final package would include more tax cuts and fewer not-so-shovel-ready make-work projects. Or he could have simply admitted he put too much faith in the good judgment of Obama and the Senate Democrats, and regretted it. Instead, he tried this:

“I didn’t endorse it,” Crist told CNN host Wolf Blitzer. “I — you know, I didn’t even have a vote on the darned thing. But I understood that it was going to pass and I wanted to be able to utilize it for the benefit of my fellow Floridians.”

For this, PoliFact gave Crist its rare “Pants on Fire” rating on its Truth-O-Meter.

(6) Why did Crist pledge that he wouldn’t leave the Republican party? This one will be the killer, violating a pretty clear pledge made on national television:

CHRIS WALLACE: Here is your chance to dispel all the rumors. Are you willing to pledge right here, right now that you will run in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate and not run as an independent?

CHARLIE CRIST: I’m running as a Republican. I’m very proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, others that really have stood up for the principles of our party, like Ronald Reagan.This is a great party. It has a great future. We have a great opportunity to win in November. It’s important that we put a candidate up that can win in November.

WALLACE: So are you ruling out that you will file as an independent by the April 30th deadline?

CRIST: That’s right. That’s right. I’m running as a Republican.

WALLACE: You will run not for a governor — you’ll run for Senate, and you will run as a — in the Republican primary.

CRIST: Chris, I’m running for the United States Senate. I know that our country needs help. I’m running as a Republican. This man to my left is a friend but I hope to defeat him on August the 24th, and I would encourage every Florida Republican to get out and vote.

WALLACE: Will you support the winner of the GOP primary, whether it’s you or Marco Rubio?

CRIST: Of course I will.

(Ironically, Crist’s comments mirrored another easily-discarded pledge from another early favorite of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Arlen Specter, who told Newsweek, “I’m a Republican and I’m going to run in the Republican primary and on the Republican ticket,” a few weeks before flipping parties.)

If a candidate can break a pledge that is expressed so forcefully and clearly with the entire country watching, why should voters trust him on anything else?

In such a wild political year, it’s obviously not impossible for Charlie Crist to win Florida’s Senate race. But looking at his decision-making over the past 16 months, the only candidate he’s set to defeat is himself.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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