Politics

Hurricane Charlie (Crist) blows through Tampa

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Tropical Storm Isaac had just delayed the Republican National Convention when a new menace hit the GOP: Hurricane Charlie Crist.

The former Republican and former governor waited until the Sunday before the Tampa convention to pen an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times that officially cast his lot with President Obama.

It was yet another sign that Crist — now an independent — is expected to join the Democratic Party. It also positions him for a speaking slot at the Democrats’ convention next week as well as a run for his old seat against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in two years.

But Crist also carries baggage that could weigh down the power of his endorsement as well as his future political ambitions. Republicans quickly howled that Crist is a “crass political opportunist” and isn’t so much a storm threat as a gust of hot air.

Indeed, Crist was a storm force in Florida politics. But he’s also a political weathervane.

Right now, though, the op-ed is clearly a coup for the Obama campaign. Democrats can crow that Crist’s support is a bellwether of independent-minded voters in Florida and a repudiation of today’s Republicanism.

“Across Florida, in Washington and around the country, I've watched the failure of those who favor extreme rhetoric over sensible compromise,” Crist wrote, “and I've seen how those who never lose sight of solutions sow the greatest successes.”

Yet Crist is a flawed messenger when it comes to talking about achievements.

His term as governor from 2007 to 2011 was characterized by the worst recession since the Great Depression and an inability to square his self-described optimism with the pain of everyday Floridians.

Crist’s health-insurance plan failed to expand affordable healthcare. His tax-cut plans failed to boost the economy. People lost their homes and jobs in droves. He proposed a public-works building program that busted before it turned dirt.

Amid rampant job loss, Crist couldn’t articulate any concrete plans to boost employment. Instead, he visited unemployment centers and talked about job losses. He advocated for President Obama’s stimulus package and unemployment benefits, but the hope of turning the economy around faded.

What’s more, Crist had a schedule that sometimes appeared light on governing and heavy on time off, politicking or travelling. He took an average of 10 weeks off a year.

Then, when a safe-looking U.S. Senate seat came open in 2010, he preferred to leave the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for a seat in Washington.

But the bad economy and Crist’s literal embrace of Obama and the stimulus cost him. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio started beating Crist so badly in the Republican primary that Crist left the GOP after repeatedly saying he wouldn’t. He lost in the general election.

Crist’s hand-picked Republican Party of Florida Chairman, Jim Greer, had tried to help Crist’s Senate campaign but was later charged with fraud. Greer says he’s not guilty, was set up by Rubio-loving Republicans and was abandoned by Crist.

Crist will now say the party left him, that he didn’t leave the party. But it only happened when an election was on the line. And it proved that a third-party candidate can’t win statewide in Florida.

Now, another election in 2014 looms and Crist could make yet another switch — from independent to Democrat.

His political evolution has been gradual. Crist last month penned a Washington Post editorial bashing Gov. Scott’s handling of voting rights, and he has helped and endorsed a handful of Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson.

But Crist’s potential bid as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate won’t be easy. State Sen. Nan Rich, a liberal Democrat from Weston, is running. Former candidate and state CFO Alex Sink might try again. They’ll note all the conservative positions Crist once had before he jettisoned them.

Crist, however, could prove popular with black and Jewish voters for his liberal record when it came to voting rights, hurricane insurance, schools and downplaying social conservatism. After calling himself pro-life for years, Crist vetoed an abortion-related sonogram bill.

Crist’s precipitous fall in 2010 was a shock. He was one of Florida’s most popular politicians, a force of political nature who had been on five of the last seven ballots. He has won statewide election three times as a Republican.

Now he’s raining on the very convention he helped bring to his home base of Tampa Bay just when the GOP had to cancel its Monday events due to the threat of Isaac.

Republicans are telling the party faithful to remind voters and the media that Crist once ran as clone of former Gov. Jeb Bush and President Reagan. They also unearthed Crist's old Tweets from 2010, when he was running as an Obamacare-bashing Republican.

“I’ve said it time and again,” former GOP spokesman Brian Hughes said in an email, “he is the silly putty of Florida politics, he’ll bend whatever direction you want and if you smash him against the newspaper he’ll offer you a poll-tested, mirror version.”

But the Republican Party has its own flip-floppery to reconcile with. When Crist was a Republican, the party once praised his handling of the economy and criticized reporters for noting all the struggles that happened on Crist’s watch.

At the same, Democrats like former party spokesman Eric Jotkoff bashed Crist just before the August 2008 RNC for “his $250,000 junket to Europe touring Buckingham Palace and sipping lattes at cafes across Paris as Florida’s economy tanked.”

Jotkoff is now a spokesman for Obama’s campaign, which selected Crist to write the Tampa Bay Times op-ed that was paired with a column penned by Republican Mitt Romney.

Now Democrats love Crist and Republicans don’t.

The amnesia and intellectual contortions by the parties and Crist over his record is notable because it’s so typical in a political environment that’s like the weather in Florida.

If you don’t like what the political parties and politicians are saying, stick around. It’ll change or blow over.

Read more Political Currents stories from the Miami Herald

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