Charlie Crist told the people in the crowd to stand up. They did.
“Now please sit down,” he said. They complied again.
“Look how much power I have over you, and I haven’t even won yet,” Crist joked, drawing laughs — and ultimately a landslide of votes — to win his first election as student council president.
Many years and elections later, we see the same old Crist. Friendly, with a knack for winning a crowd.
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But nowadays, he’s trying to move the masses in a far more difficult way — as an author explaining his party-switching in his new book The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.
Written as the former governor mounts a comeback for his old job, Crist’s book is a campaign document. It’s not just autobiography.
Starting with the title, the 341-page book reinvents some of Crist’s history.
Crist didn’t leave the Republican Party because it was “hijacked.” He bolted because he was going to lose a Republican U.S. Senate primary to Marco Rubio.
It was political survival. For Crist to suggest otherwise plays right into long-standing criticisms of him: that he’ll say anything to get elected.
No matter what Crist said or did in 2010, it didn’t work at the polls. After becoming an independent, he ultimately lost in the three-way Senate race. He registered as a Democrat shortly after helping President Barack Obama win reelection in 2012.
In his book, Crist emphasizes his close ties to Obama. Crist downplays his prior criticisms of the president and his polices, highlights his centrist record and overall portrays himself as a moderate stranger in a strange conservative land.
Crist also pays short shrift to his reversals, zigzags and rhetorical tacks through the years.
Omissions aside, The Party’s Over is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the man who was — and could again be — the governor of the nation’s most-important political swing state. Polls show he leads Republican successor and current opponent Gov. Rick Scott.
As a Republican governor, Crist was a dream for many Democrats. Soon after assuming office in 2010, Crist at times cajoled and almost forced the GOP-led Legislature to move more to the political center.
To many conservatives, it felt as if Crist was moving the party to the left when it came to property insurance, voting and felons rights, climate change and other issues.
President Obama’s stimulus package signaled a point of no return for Crist after he literally and figuratively embraced the president and the plan in a staged Fort Myers event on Feb. 10, 2009.
At the time, the GOP in Washington and around the nation was trashing the stimulus.
“I know what you’re risking here,” Obama said to him privately at the time, according to Crist’s book.
“Frankly, I wasn’t sure I was risking anything at all,” Crist writes, noting the benefits of the stimulus.
Crist’s book tellingly points out Obama was popular at the time as well. It’s an indication that the Fort Myers appearance wasn’t just about policy. It was about poll numbers and political stagecraft for two highly popular figures at the time.
It soon became clear Crist miscalculated.
With the benefit of hindsight, Crist acknowledges his misappraisal. His explanation of why he was silent as the party drifted right, however, is strained.
In the book, Crist bashes “Looney Land” conservative activism in the 2005 Terri Schiavo euthanasia case. He voices concerns that U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he wanted to make Obama a one-term president. He chides former Gov. Jeb Bush for the way he handled a voting law.
But when all of this was happening, basically Crist said nothing. He went along to get along, like most politicians.
Crist repeatedly campaigned in 2006 and then in 2010 as a “Jeb Bush Republican.” Now Crist repeatedly writes that in the 2010 race he was running as the “moderate.”
In his 2006 GOP primary for governor, Crist said he’d sign a state abortion ban that only had rape-and-incest exceptions. In 2010, after he became an independent, he vetoed an abortion-ultrasound bill.
Crist plays up the 2010 veto in The Party’s Over. The 2006 abortion statement? No mention.
In an act of candor, Crist writes that, in at least one speech in 2010: “I can’t deny I might have shaded my feelings a little and emphasized the parts I knew the voters wanted to hear. Looking back on those days, I do cringe a little. I wasn’t free as I would have liked to be. I was trying to do my best with the changing reality.”
Two years before, Crist had been a shortlister to run against Obama on John McCain’s 2008 Republican presidential ticket. In 2010, McCain was a liability in a GOP primary. And Crist found that his high poll numbers were ephemeral, that lip service and half measures to conservative causes no longer sufficed for Republican voters.
For years, Crist’s conservative opponents called out his moderate and “liberal” streak.
In an interesting reversal, some who once said he was a fake conservative now want voters to know about Crist’s past conservative statements in order to cost him Democratic votes in his primary against former state Sen. Nan Rich this year.
To shore up his new Democratic base, Crist not only takes relatively mild shots at Jeb Bush and Rubio, he also criticizes McCain’s 2008 running mate Sarah Palin, “cynical” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and strategist Karl Rove, who called him “chickensh*t” for skipping out on a 2006 Florida event with President Bush.
Crist also reinvents his position on gay marriage to make him look more like Obama was.
“We were both for gay civil unions,” Crist writes, “though neither of us was pro-gay-marriage — yet.”
Under Crist, the state GOP in 2008 promoted a successful state constitutional amendment that explicitly banned same-sex civil unions as well as gay marriage.
“I voted for it,” Crist told the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) outside his polling place on Election Day 2008. “It's what I believe in.”
None of that is in the book. Crist recently apologized to gay-rights activists, just not in The Party’s Over.
There was no mistaking that the amendment targeted civil unions at the time. That was clear from Florida Supreme Court arguments. The amendment’s backer, John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council made sure civil unions wouldn’t be used as a way to get around a gay-marriage ban.
Stemberger also argued against Crist’s March 2009 pick of James E.C. Perry for the Florida Supreme Court because he wasn’t a conservative and would keep the high court left leaning. “Here’s a rule of thumb I’ve learned from twenty-something years in Florida politics: When the Family Policy Council starts talking about balance — run like hell the other way!” Crist writes.
By the summer of 2009, the once-long-shot Rubio started racking up straw-poll wins against Crist at county Republican meetings.
Rubio also gained elite Republican support because Crist refused to do anything about the misspending of his hand-picked state party chairman, Jim Greer, who ultimately pleaded guilty to theft and money-laundering charges.
As Rubio surged, Crist started to tack right. He started cold-calling local GOP leaders, telling one in a story I wrote at the time: “I'm as conservative as any governor. I'm Chain Gang Charlie. I'm pro-gun. I'm pro-life.”
Crist stepped up his criticisms of Obamacare, which he now says he supports. By November of 2009, he even started to criticize the stimulus.
“I didn’t endorse it,” Crist told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a statement that earned him a Pants-On-Fire lie rating from PolitiFact.
“You know, unfortunately, the president thinks that everything we need to do for every problem that comes along is spend more money and that's just wrong,” Crist said then.
That doesn’t appear in the book, either.
Crist, though, says he orginally decided to run for Senate in 2010, in part because “Barack Obama, I noticed, could probably use some assistance.”
Crist sure had an odd way of showing it early on.
Crist reprises in the book how he took on Rubio at a FOX debate by touting the job-protecting benefits of the stimulus. Crist also points out that Rubio recently reversed his hardline stance on immigration, which Rubio used against Crist at the time.
During the FOX debate, Crist repeatedly and explicitly denied he would leave the GOP to run as an independent.
A month later, on April 29, 2010, Crist left the party.
This major moment in the debate and his subsequent backtracking is simply rubbed out in The Party’s Over.
In a telling anecdote earlier in the book, where he talks about former felons’ voting rights, Crist recounts how his grandfather once pointed out that a pencil has two functions: “Every pencil has an eraser because everybody makes mistakes.”
But in The Party’s Over, Crist sometimes uses too much eraser and too little pencil.