Political Hay

The Specter of a New Arlen

Charlie Crist has some good news and some bad news for Republicans.

By 3.24.09

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TAMPA -- There's good news and bad for Republican U.S. Senate hopes. Now that it's near certain that Florida's rookie Republican governor, Charlie Crist, will run for the Senate in 2010 rather than for re-election as governor, the GOP stands a good chance of retaining the seat current Republican Senator Mel Martinez has said he will not seek re-election to, and would not have won had he done so.

That's the good news. For reasons that teach more about widespread gullibility than anything else, Governor Crist's job approval numbers remain in the high-sixties. In an election today, Crist would defeat any of the Democrats likely to pursue the Senate seat.

The bad news, at least for conservatives, is more comprehensive. Crist is a Republican, but a right peculiar one. Republicans face the specter of another Arlen in the Senate if Crist runs and wins.

Though Crist has held the tax increase line in Florida, he's hardly a conservative. (Even here Crist has come up with an imaginative list of fee increases to help Florida continue to spend as if no recession were on.) When spending cuts are discussed, the quickest way to rile-up voters, Charlie is AWOL. And he supports all manner of costly enviro-nonsense. He's the RINO's RINO. Conservative Republicans in Florida would gladly trade Crist to the Democrats for a case of Gatorade and an Olympia Snowe bubble-gum card.

Crist himself prefers the title "populist" to conservative, the most accurate label for him. He's more an Auh-nuld without the pecs and biceps than a Sarah Palin without the, well, never mind.

While conservatives defend the principles of limited government, the free market, and personal liberty, Crist natters on about bipartisanship (which seems to mean, if Crist's actions are any guide, Republicans doing things Democrats do).

Crist's supporters, including editorial writers with Florida newspapers, praise him for "reaching out to Democrats." Misfortunately, he's almost never caught reaching out to Republicans.

When Florida Republicans gathered at the Hotel Intercontinental in Miami 10 days after the November elections to lick their electoral wounds and devise partisan plans for a comeback, Charlie was to be found, not with the Republicans, but tête-à-tête with Democratic Florida Senator Dan Gelber of Miami Beach. The conversation, according to Crist, was about the healing properties of bipartisanship, though exactly what bipartisanship requires of Democrats he didn't make clear (nor has he ever in any of his Kumbaya talks).

If Crist does run for the Senate, he may well be facing this same Dan Gelber. Then we'll know what bipartisanship means to Gelber. Probably the same as it means to Crist -- Republicans doing what Democrats do.

Sarah Palin was at the same conference. She said Republicans will win again if they stick to conservative principles and oppose the Obama administration when it lurches left. In stark contrast, Crist said what the GOP needs to stress is racial inclusiveness, bipartisanship, and civility. "It worked in Florida; it could work nationally," he said.

The only intelligent response to this Obama-esque bromide is, "Huh?" While Crist had little time for Republicans in November, he had time to appear with our rookie president (the politician Crist most resembles in ratio of substance to style) when Obama whooped up his "stimulus" piñata at a February town-hall meeting in Fort Myers. Crist alienated conservatives by murmuring sweet nothings for days about the Obama spending plan, and then cheesed them off again in March when he appointed a liberal judge to the Florida Supreme Court.

In his strategy of cuddling-up as close to the Left as possible without alienating the conservative base, Crist has been especially solicitous of enviro-socialists. Some of the things Crist has done to court Sierra Clubbers are harmless enough, such as having solar panels installed on the roof of the Florida Governor's mansion in Tallahassee. Others of his actions could lead to more toxic results.

Charlie put on a dog and pony photo-op in Miami in July of '07 (Charlie called it a "global climate-change summit") with the grand but ambiguous title of "Serve to Preserve." At the "summit," held when global warming was scoring better with focus groups, Charlie declared climate-change "one of the most important issues we face this century" and dragged the aforementioned Governor Schwarzenegger to the show to attract television cameras. Auh-nuld shared such keen scientific insights as, "We have to say, 'hasta la vista, Baby' to greenhouse gases."

Charlie claimed he would gather "the brightest minds" to help him fight the threat (which it almost certainly isn't) of man-caused warming. The bright minds Charlie gathered in Miami, other than Auh-nuld, who confused juvenile action-movie lines with considered public policy, included such as Robert Kennedy, Jr., Franklin D. Roosevelt, IV, and a couple of EU greenies and weenies. The title of Kennedy's latest book demonstrates how even-minded, objective, and expert he is on environmental matters: Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and his Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking our Democracy.

With "experts" like these, who needs activists? Crist's strategy seems to be to fight greenhouse gasses with greenhouse gasbags. After the summit, Crist has eagerly reinforced his enviro-nutter credentials by spending time with and being photographed with other environmental experts such as rocker Sheryl Crow, Laurie David (producer of Al Gore's hysteria flick, An Inconvenient Truth), Robert Redford, and the Prince of Wales.

At the "summit," Crist issued executive orders obliging Florida utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity using "alternative fuels." This means boutique fuels such as wind and solar which are unreliable, unavailable (when the wind dies down and we have clouds and night), and costly. Fortunately, these orders require implementing legislation. The Florida Legislature is currently considering such legislation. With luck, these guys and gals are bright enough not to impose sharply increased energy costs on Floridians during a recession.

Crist has also ordered state regulators to whoop up renewable energy programs and to look with disfavor on coal-fired plants. Succinctly put, it's Charlie's policy that Florida produce energy with fuel that doesn't exist rather than with fuel that does exist. Utility executives have caught on and are not even going forward with plans for coal-fired plants. Too bad you can't create electricity from self-centered arrogance. Charlie could light half the state on his own.

For those wondering why a governor with such high approval numbers for governing should wish to become a U.S. Senator, a review of Crist's political history provides a clue. From when Charlie first won a seat in the Florida Senate in 1992, he's been the poster child for PADD (Political Attention Deficit Disorder). His six years in the Florida Senate were his longest tenure in any of the many Florida offices he's held, and the Florida Senate is the only office he's run for re-election to. He's always had his eyes on the next prize.

In '98 Crist left the Florida Senate to run for the U.S. one in a kamikaze mission against popular Democratic Senator Bob Graham. He lost that one big, his fans saying Charlie was "taking one for the team." But subsequent events have left little doubt that Team Charlie is the only team that matters with Crist. The loss increased Crist's statewide name recognition and helped him win an election as Florida Education Secretary in 2000.

Crist knows next to nothing about education, and, again, events showed he didn't care much about it either. He'd barely gotten the seat in his education secretary office warm when he was planning a run for the Florida Attorney General's office, which he won in 2002. After four years as Florida's lawyer, he ran and won the governor's office, announcing he had the job he'd always wanted.

After claiming for two years that he wanted eight-straight as governor, an open Senate seat changed everything. Now Crist says he'll announce after the current session of the Florida Legislature which office he'll seek. No reason for this sudden coyness other than a change of mind. I've talked with Republican political consultants and savvy folks with Republican organizations. Not one of these worthies thinks Charlie will run for re-election as governor.

The reasons are easy to parse. Crist would be term-limited if he remains Florida's governor through 2014. So long as political skills don't desert, he could stay in the U.S. Senate forever (see Ted Kennedy, Robert C. Byrd).

Florida has serious problems, and as governor, Crist could be held responsible at some point if he doesn't deal with these problems competently. He's promised much in the areas of property tax relief and property insurance rate relief while delivering almost nothing. Voters will eventually notice.

Responsibility is diffuse to non-existent in the Senate. Show-boaters like Charlie can pose, make speeches, and blend into the background or point fingers at others when things go wrong. A second term as Florida's governor could see Charlie's popularity tank as badly as the economy has. He's smart enough to know this.

So here we have it, Charlie Crist, Senate candidate, and the specter of an Arlen in the making. With good news like this….

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.