It’s not easy to look less coherent, less prepared, less thoughtful, more bizarre than Charlie Crist. Many veteran Charlie-watchers didn’t believe it could be done. Until Wednesday night, that is, when Republican Florida governor Rick Scott managed to pull it off.
In the first day of Electoral Politics 101 we learn that in televised debates the first rule is don’t commit a gaffe. Don’t do or say something dumb that might cost votes. Scott broke that rule Wednesday.
So many newspaper and Internet images of the Wednesday night debate at Broward College show just one candidate on the stage — Crist. That’s because for several minutes after the debate was scheduled to begin, Scott refused to take the stage. He wouldn’t come on because Crist had a small fan behind his podium. Those who’ve seen the coverage of the event know I’m not making this up.
Crist has a fan on him when he makes public talks in order not to be seen sweating. Considering the left-wing nonsense Crist is retailing these days, perhaps he should sweat. But let it pass for now.
Fall may have fallen on the mainland, but it was 90 degrees in Broward County Wednesday and the auditorium was sultry. So Scott looked petty and foolish objecting to the fan and delaying the debate. He should have kept his cool and allowed Charlie to. And as Crist has been hauling his fan around for years, it should have come as no surprise to Scott or his handlers. (Mishandlers, more like it.) It’s an issue that could have and should have been sorted well before the 7 p.m. debate kickoff time.
Scott’s stated reason for objecting to the fan was that debate rules call for no electronic devices on the stage with the candidates. This rule doubtless came about because in 2010 Democratic candidate Alex Sink, who lost the governorship to Scott that year by a hair, was getting help from a campaign worker in the audience during a debate with an electronic gizmo. It’s hard to see a fan as an electronic device rather than simply an electric appliance. But rules is rules.
Of course Crist could have ended the pathetic controversy by saying, “If the fan is holding the debate up, I’ll just do without it.” That would have been consistent with the rules both candidates had agreed to. But strangely, the overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning Florida and national media did not dwell on this option in Thursday’s coverage. Instead what Crist said, to considerable applause from a college audience, was, “Are we really going to debate about a fan? Or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean really.”
Advantage Crist. In the idiom of the baseball playoffs, which I’m enjoying more than I’m enjoying Florida politics, Scott fanned. Crist broke the rule, but Scott looked worse. On Thursday his campaign released the following statement, “Charlie Crist can bring his fan, microwave, and toaster to debates — none of that will cover up how sad his record as governor was compared to the success of Rick Scott.” Good response, but more than a little late.
When the debate finally got underway, things didn’t get a lot better for Scott, whose actions and policies are more coherent than his campaign explanations of them. He is no friend of the clear, declarative sentence, or of the smooth and logical rollout of an idea. It’s an honored tradition in American political discourse of candidates answering questions other than the ones they are asked. But few are as clumsy at it as Scott.
Crist is smarmy and often disingenuous, but his delivery is as smooth as that of his new political hero, Barack Obama. The casual observer often doesn’t have enough information to spot the non-sequiturs, logic leaps, and flat-out whoppers. I’ll avoid the fashionable and annoying word “optics.” But Crist looks better than he is while Scott looks worse.
Much time was spent by both candidates Wednesday re-hashing the often overstated charges in their TV attack ads, some of the nastiest in any campaign and which Floridians are sick of and mostly tuning out. (Not all the hot air was because of the weather.) Crist reiterated his charge that Scott doesn’t care about the environment. Scott, no surprise, says he does. There followed an argument over who would spend the most to protect the environment if elected. Neither provided any details on how their pricey environmental initiatives would actually improve Florida’s environment.
Both candidates accused the other of being insufficiently generous to government education, a $25 billion-plus enterprise in Florida. They both suggested they would open the Florida treasury more widely for schools and state universities than their chintzy opponent.
Whenever Scott got a question he was clearly not prepared to answer, he launched into his set piece on how hard he is working to bring jobs to Florida. Crist took several opportunities to suggest that Scott had been a dishonest businessman before being elected governor and was just another rich guy looking out for other rich guys. Scott countered that he had been born into a poor family and had lived for a while in public housing whereas Crist was the son of a comfortably middle class physician.
It went on like this for an hour, less the time arguing about the fan. As for what either of these guys would do as governor for the next four years, viewers learned nothing new. Anyone paying attention to what these two have said on the campaign trail, and to their records in office, is aware that Scott’s performance has been center-right, Crist’s promises are left-left. This may be helpful for voters to remember while the two candidates fight like two children in a sand box. Both campaigns cry out for adult supervision.
The candidates “debate” again next Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine who looks forward to or in on these events. It’s even harder to imagine whose mind could possible have been changed by anything heard in last night’s event. Both candidates have every reason to want to move the political meter, which is just now sitting at 50-50.
Most polls of this race have been within the margin of error for weeks. The most recent CNN poll showed both candidates with 44 percent. The debates offer the candidates opportunities to score some points, to win some supporters. But it doesn’t look like either of them is up to taking advantage of these opportunities.