The Agenda

Charlie Crist is Confused

Why would Democrats want Charlie Crist to switch parties? I understand that this would help reinforce the view that there is no home for moderates in the Republican Party, thus strengthening a key Democratic narrative. The problem is that Crist really is one of the worst governors in the United States, if not the absolute worst. This has nothing to do with ideology per se. Crist has backed conservative policies as well as liberal policies. He’s even gotten some things right. For example, I think Crist was very wise to support reforming the criminal justice system and I also think that there’s a decent case for restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. But on the central issues facing a governor or for that matter a U.S. senator — issues surrounding taxing and spending — Crist is clueless. 

Megan McArdle recently wrote a post that offered measured praise for David Paterson, the governor of New York who has decided against running for reelection. Paterson made a number of bad calls, but as Megan notes, he also did things that Crist did not. 

But when the state had a crushing budget deficit, he made some hard choices.  Unpopular choices, which a better politician wouldn’t have made–but which are ultimately the reason that New York is not yet California. 

Or, for that matter, Florida, where Crist’s approach threatens the state’s long-term fiscal health. Rather than see federal stimulus funds as a one-time injection that could spare the state pro-cyclical cuts while creating room for a long-term plan to reduce the size of state government in line with revenues, he seemed to think that it gave him an opportunity to permanently ratchet up spending while also cutting taxes. No wonder he embraced the president. 

When Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet of the Miami Herald asked Crist about the virtues of the plan, he said, “I think it’s fantastic. Are you kidding me? We don’t have to raise taxes.” Moreover, Crist continued, “we might be able to cut property taxes some more. We have more money for education, so we can increase per-student spending. We can spend more money on our roads and infrastructure. We can provide health care for our people. I mean, it’s remarkable.”

I think most Floridians can agree that these would be good things to do. The question is whether the stimulus was designed to exacerbate the long-term fiscal imbalances facing state governments. Criticize ARRA all you want — I’ve criticized it a lot — I’m pretty sure that its program of aid to the states was not deliberately designed to this end.

And it seems that Crist takes the same approach to issues before Congress. John McCormack points of the Weekly Standard points us to a fascinating post in the Palm Beach Post by Michael C. Bender. 

Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, told The Palm Beach Post editorial board on Friday that, unlike many Republicans in Washington, he didn’t think President Obama should scrap his health care reform proposal:

“There may be parts of it that you don’t have to scrap. There are three parts of it that I would like to see scrapped: It would raise taxes significantly, it would raise rates significantly and it would take half-a-trillion dollars out of Medicare.

“I think the real issue here, as it relates to health care, is that people want it to not cost so much and people want to have access to it. I think there is a consensus of agreement that the health care that is delivered in America is good. But it’s not easy to get it and it’s too expensive when you do get it.”

So would Crist get rid of the excise tax, which is designed to discourage the use of high-cost “Cadillac” plans? And he also wants to get rid of efforts to trim growth in Medicare spending? How does he intend to pay for increased access? 

As for raising rates significantly, it’s not clear to me that Crist understands the basics: Marc Ambinder published, to his credit, a lengthy exchange with a Republican Congressional aide on the question of whether or not premiums increase under the Senate health bill. The GOP aide writes:

This is wrong: “For most Americans by far, premiums would either stay the same or go down.” You’re leaving off an important point: compared to “current law.”. In other words, under their bill, CBO said, most premiums would go up (just as they would under status quo) but for some they would go up exactly the same amount, and for some they would go up, but up to three percent less. To simplify using round numbers: If we do nothing, all premiums in “the small group and business markets” will go up by $100 dollars. If we pass the dem bill, those same premiums will still go up–some by $100 dollars, others by $97. But they all go up. Make sense?

If we’re going to be fair to the Senate health bill, let’s acknowledge that Crist’s characterization isn’t quite right. It’s not “raising rates significantly,” unless you’re factoring the individual market, where it does raise rates but it does so because it essentially mandates the use of more comprehensive benefit packages. What it does not do is lower rates significantly.

The GOP aide continues:

Getting a subsidy does not equal getting a lower premium. It’s a better outcome for you, but it’s the result of taxpayers giving you money, not a result of having your premiums lower-Dems have been quite disingenuous about that. A welfare check is not a job any more than a subsidy is a lower premium, right?

ObamaCare will raise many people’s premiums and nearly everyone will continue to have higher premiums (again, whether as a result or in spite of the bill). They pitched this bill as lowering premiums for people and “bending the cost curve.” It does neither. It does spend a ton of money, cuts a lot of Medicare and taxes a hell of a lot in order to pay a fraction of the population’s insurance premiums. But it does not lower premiums and it does not bend the cost curve (not down, anyway).

I actually think that trimming the growth of Medicare spending is a good thing, and I also think that we should increase subsidies to state-based high-risk pools, etc. Republicans haven’t been doing enough on these fronts during this debate. That said, the GOP aide makes strong points. Unlike Crist, he understands the broad contours of the Senate health bill. His criticisms — whether you agree with them or not, and many will accuse him of not having due regard for how generous subsidies will impact the affordability question — are reality-based.

Basic point: the opposition to Crist isn’t coming out of nowhere. Charlie Crist isn’t a brilliant, capable, principled executive who has run afoul of crazed ideological extremists. He is completely clueless, and if David Paterson were to move down to Florida to run against him, I’d have to give serious thought to whether Crist was the least bad choice.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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