Charlie Crist would have been more at home in the 1950s, when reason and Republican were not mutually exclusive. He might have been more at home as the perpetual host of a game show, too, but Bob Barker beat him to the mike. Which left Crist with Florida’s version of politics in the 1990s and 2000s. This was a one-party state where Republicans could rise and thrive and be as dissimilar as the right-wingery of Jeb Bush and the pragmatism, and seeming moderation, of Charlie Crist.
It’s not that Crist was a terribly effective moderate. There’s not much relevance to being a lone moderate in an asylum of demagogues, as Crist finally figured out. Nor is Crist necessarily a moderate in absolute terms. With apologies to the jurist’s intellect, Crist is Florida’s John Paul Stevens, the retiring U.S. Supreme Court justice appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975, when Stevens was among the more conservative members of the bench. He’s retiring as one of its most liberal. That doesn’t mean he moved left. It’s the court’s lurch to the right, subsequent “liberal” appointees included, that made Stevens look increasingly moderate, then liberal. Yet his jurisprudence didn’t quite shift that much. Ten or fifteen years from now, if the likes of Marco Rubio and Bush continue to set the tone for the state GOP, Crist may well look like Florida’s most liberal senator since Claude Pepper.
Foremost a man of accommodations, Crist could stay with his pseudo-conservative brethren as long as the Republican Party maintained at least a nominal connection with the reality of everyday life, as opposed to reheated reactions from the Reagan era. The arrangement no longer works when there is no Republican Party to speak of, let alone a small tent accommodating so much as three divergent opinions. The one-party state has become a one-ideology fixation. Phrases seized for talk radio have replaced policy worthy of the nation’s fourth most populous state.
Smaller government. Restore the Constitution. Reclaim American values. Get Washington out of our lives. Those aren’t policies. They’re not even ideas. They’re cliches posing as principles. Like all cliches, they may hold a nugget of truth, but they’re tired, worn out, useless in the face of everyday difficulties almost everyone but the greater portion of people on Medicare, who’ve cashed out of the system but are still cashing in on its targeted benefits, are dealing with every day.
These cliches add nothing to the questions of here and now. If anything, to speak them is an offense in the face of 15 million unemployed and 50 million uninsured in a country where 80 percent of the people control less than 7 percent of its wealth. Lower taxes aren’t going to pay down a debt three decades in the making. Getting Washington out of our lives is a bumper-sticker huff that would cry wolf at the first inkling that Washington did shirk its role. The needed American values aren’t more of the greed and selfishness and manufactured indignation from the country’s most comfortable lot, but a return to egalitarian ideals that once mustered offense at such questions as “what’s in it for me” and acted on the moral offense of social inequities.
What Republicans discovered in the latter part of the 2000s, when the economic go-go structure they’d built, or rather diligently demolished, since 1981, finally collapsed, is that they had nothing to offer by way of a fix but more cliches. More bromides. More huffs. They had no ideas. They turned up the volume on ideology to drown out their cluelessness and brought back Ronald Reagan as the mascot of their masquerades. They foxed up a mob fueled by the pleasures of mutually reinforcing indignations and called it a movement. Or tea parties. Or Sarah Palin. Whatever it was, whatever it is continuing to become, it isn’t a program. It’s a prison with echo chambers for bars. Transgress it, and you’re the traitor.
On Thursday, Charlie Crist, never foreign to transgression, transgressed what’s left of the Republican Party.
He hasn’t been the greatest governor in Florida’s history. But he was an improvement on the developer-derby governor who preceded him–an improvement on Jeb Bush’s secrecy, on Jeb’s transformation of the educational system into an annex of the Chamber of Commerce, his devolution of the tax code into a regressive system that grazes the rich least, his contempt for the environment.
Crist in contrast could graze usually pragmatic, almost idealistic heights: Declaring himself the open-government governor from day one and following through with government-in-the-sunshine reforms, embracing Barack Obama’s stimulus package in February 2009 and ensuring the continued salaries of 25,000 Florida teachers, and finally vetoing a bill, just this month, designed to crush the state’s teacher unions and denigrate their profession (again at the behest of the state’s chambers of commerce and Jeb Bush) were all examples of governance ahead of ideology.
His Republican cohorts reviled him for it, and with the sort of revulsion they’d heaped on anyone not a Republican. Crist got the message. He discovered his inner non-Republican, or at least made peace with it. He outed himself as the true independent that he is (because a Democrat he’s not, let alone a liberal, which even Democrats haven’t been since the crash of Paul Wellstone).
Whether Crist can win isn’t the relevant question. In a two-way race, absent Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate (who is unlikely to replicate in Florida what Obama did from Illinois), Crist would win easily. Fertility clinic of independents. That’s more telling about where this state is politically than whether Crist would win (or lose) in a three-way race. What will decide the race is the extent to which the only tactics that function very well for reactionary Republicans — fear and sowing division — can split the vote between Crist and Kendrick, letting Rubio ride through to the same destination he cannot (if he hopes to make it) stop badgering: Washington.