Politics & Policy

Charlie Crist Is No Joe Lieberman

A Florida independent seeks to fit the mold cast by the Senate’s last successful party defector.

When Florida governor Charlie Crist announced in April that he would be leaving the GOP to run as an independent, comparisons to Joe Lieberman’s successful no-party bid were inevitable. Since then, the parallels have only sharpened as Crist has sought to fit the mold cast by the Senate’s last successful party defector.

Indeed, Connecticut residents watching TV in Florida would probably be hit with a nagging sense of déjà vu if they saw Charlie Crist’s current ad. Crist rearranges block letters from the names of the two major parties to spell out the word “Americans” and says, “How do we get results for Florida? By putting aside our differences and putting people ahead of politics.” A 2006 ad of Lieberman’s closed with him saying, “I’m Joe Lieberman, and I approve this message because it’s about people, not politics,” while erasing a line drawn on a chalkboard between the words “Democrats” and “Republicans.”

#ad#Other cues taken from Lieberman are more than just cosmetic. In June, Crist hired one of the architects of Lieberman’s campaign, consultant Josh Isay. Crist’s strategy of boxing out Democrat Kendrick Meek and framing the election as a two-horse race between him and Marco Rubio is reminiscent of Lieberman’s success among GOP voters. And, of course, Crist himself has cited Lieberman as inspiration.

But the fact remains: Crist is no Lieberman, and however hard he may try to walk in the Connecticut senator’s footsteps, stark differences between the two races suggest he will have difficulty following an independent path.

The most obvious difference is that Lieberman’s move to an independent ticket represented a reflection of his beliefs, not a change in them.

“With Lieberman it was organic. Eight months before he lost the Democratic nomination, the polling showed he had a home among Republicans, and, to a lesser extent, independents,” says Mark Pazniokas, who covered the race for the Hartford Courant. “He emphasized more after the primary his ability to work across party lines — that was more subtle. It wasn’t like he lost the primary and suddenly remade himself.”

In that way, Lieberman’s flight from the Democratic party almost made him seem more principled.

“It was a really unique feat of jujitsu, because Lieberman was able to claim — in a certain sense, steal — the outsider mantle and role in the race, even after being in Washington for eighteen years, because he had a record of standing apart from the partisanship and pettiness,” says Dan Gerstein, who was communications director for the 2006 campaign.

Meanwhile, Crist’s breaks with the party he used to represent have smacked of opportunism. His vetoes of a teacher merit-pay bill and a pre-abortion-ultrasound requirement immediately before and after he left the GOP conflict with the “Jeb Bush Republican” message he sold while running for governor. Rubio’s campaign has counted six different positions from Crist on health-care reform. Crist has also flip-flopped on gay adoption and described his shifting stance as an “appropriate evolution.” The Tampa Tribune summed up popular sentiment in one bold, front-page headline: “Crist racks up contradictions.”

Also, as he moves toward the center, Crist confronts the other huge difference between this race and Lieberman’s: the strength of the lagging third candidate, Democrat Kendrick Meek. In Connecticut, Republican Alan Schlesinger was perceived as damaged goods — a candidate who had used an alias to count cards in casinos and had been sued twice for gambling debts.

“The Republican party pretty much punted,” Pazniokas says. “The Bush White house gave its passing endorsement to Lieberman. So, you know, you could make the case that Lieberman became the de facto Republican nominee.”

Schlesinger ultimately took only 10 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of Republicans rallying behind Lieberman. Crist’s route to victory will similarly require Kendrick Meeks to run a distant third.

#page#“That’s the key to the race, whether Crist can marginalize Meek to the point that Democratic voters will say, ‘Well, I’m wasting my vote voting for Meek,’” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “If Crist can get more Democrats than Meek gets, Crist is likely to be the next U.S. senator.”

That’s more easily said than done. If real-estate billionaire Jeff Greene had won Florida’s Democratic primary, his baggage — scandals ranging from shady business deals to Cuban yacht parties — would have made him analogous to Schlesinger. But Meek is a sitting congressman with backing from heavyweights such as Bill Clinton and Rahm Emanuel.

#ad#Indeed, the latest poll for which crosstabs are public shows Meek leading among Democratic voters 47–31, though his share of the total vote is only 21 percent.

Meek’s share of the vote may change dramatically by election day, however. “I think there’s going to be a point where, unless he can really make some gains in the polls and prove to the people who might otherwise vote for Crist that he’s a viable candidate, you’re going to see a big swing away from him,” Gerstein says. “And then there’s going to be a point where Democrats are going to have to make a very tough decision whether to abandon him or not.” But that will be a hard sell for Floridians who believe in Meek both personally and politically, especially since Crist refuses to say which side he would caucus with if elected.

The seven weeks until November leave plenty of time for change. Competent management of a hurricane disaster could boost Crist at just the right moment, or he could pledge to caucus with Democrats to avoid being stuck in the middle. But there’s good reason to believe that Florida 2010 won’t be like Connecticut 2006 — in which case Charlie Crist will soon find himself in the most independent position of all: that of a private citizen.

– Kyle O. Peterson writes for National Review Onlines Battle ’10 blog.

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