Charlie Crist’s announcement that he is abandoning the Republican party to launch an independent bid for U.S. Senate in Florida had a surprisingly anti-climactic feel to it. The political class has known for weeks that Crist would bolt from the GOP. It was a bitter admission that he is no longer viable in the party he headed as its titular leader until yesterday. His earlier veto of an education reform bill telegraphed his intentions. Giving new meaning to the term “sore loser,” Crist tried to cloak his declaration in the motives of ideological centrism and sun-kissed populism: He would give ”the people” the right to ”a choice” in November.
Nonsense. Jeb Bush, who hangs over this race like a character in a Samuel Beckett play who never appears on stage but dominates the action, dismissed Crist’s move as devoid of principle. ”I’m not surprised,” he said. ”This was a concession speech,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican party. ”Crist conceded the primary four months before the votes are cast.” A sitting governor with all the power, all the money, and all the endorsements is toast, the victim of a 65-point swing in the polls in the space of nine months.
The media predictably used the episode for yet another installment in its cookie-cutter analysis of an alleged “civil war” roiling the GOP. In the media’s narrative, tea partiers, gun-toting religious nuts, and ideological purists are driving politicians like Arlen Specter and Crist away, shrinking the party of Lincoln and Reagan until it fits in a phone booth. (Funny, isn’t it, that we don’t hear about a ”holy war” in the Democratic party when Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, bankrolled by union bosses and Moveon.org, opposes Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic Senate primary in Arkansas?) The notion that the GOP is a moderate-free zone is hogwash. As Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post points out, moderate candidates like Mark Kirk, Scott Brown, Mike Castle, and Meg Whitman are making a strong appeal for Republican grassroots support.
So if Crist’s public divorce from the Republican party does not signal a GOP crack-up, what exactly does it signify? First, it shows what a dead weight Obama is for politicians of both parties. The famous shot of Crist hugging Obama hurt him as much as Obama’s low job approval numbers weighed down Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Martha Coakley in Massachusetts — a fate now threatening Democratic candidates from coast to coast. When Obama campaigned for Deeds and Coakley (and former governor Jon Corzine in New Jersey), no surge in support materialized. ”Yes, we can!” became “wake me up when it’s over.”
Second, voters across the board — from tea-party activists to party rank-and-file to anxious independents — are hungering for authenticity. Crist’s political calculation and chameleon-like shifts on the issues (and now party affiliation) repel far more voters than they attract. Voters would rather support a politician with convictions, like Marco Rubio, even as they may disagree with him on some issues, because they know where he stands and they trust him to tell them what he really believes. This is the essence of leadership, especially in a moment of crisis.
Finally, Crist still does not grasp that the country wants a check on Obama, not an enabler in Republican or independent skin. The backlash over spending, soaring debt, government take-over of major industries, and Obamacare calls for a new breed of GOP leaders who are unafraid to stand in the gap and stop the Obama agenda. Crist’s failure to understand that is what sunk his candidacy in the GOP and will likely do so in the general election. It also explains why John McCain is moving to the right so swiftly in his primary with J.D. Hayworth in Arizona — causing whip-lash for his former base, the media.
The truth is that Crist, who has won three statewide elections in Florida, did so without ever being tested within his own party. When he ran for the GOP nomination for attorney general in 2002, his two primary opponents were underfunded state legislators with no statewide name ID who never bought a single television ad. When he ran for governor in 2006, his primary opponent, state insurance commissioner Tom Gallagher, was hobbled by skyrocketing insurance rates and insurers abandoning the state after a rash of hurricanes. Crist’s luck held out until Rubio gave him the first genuinely daunting primary challenge of a previously charmed elective career.
Crist may turn out to be right, but not in the way he intended. Giving voters a choice in November may be a healthy and clarifying exercise in the messy but altogether exhilarating (and transfixing) enterprise we call democracy. Not because Crist is triangulating between the two parties, but because Marco Rubio will provide a clear conservative alternative, one that promises to help stop the Obama agenda in its tracks.
— Ralph E. Reed Jr. is CEO of Century Strategies and chairman of Faith and Freedom Coalition.