It says something about our passion for politics — despite enduring months of a tedious onslaught of political commercials in this critical swing state — that the 2012 election is only a few weeks behind us and we’ve already started a new dialogue about the 2014 midterms.
The hottest speculation, of course, is the governor’s race, which more than a few political junkies think could become a battle between Gov. Rick Scott — assuming he survives a possible challenge in the Republican primary — and the man who preceded him, Charlie Crist.
Elected in 2006 after serving as Florida’s attorney general, Crist was a Republican, and at the end of his term in 2010, he bailed on the party to run as an independent for the U.S. Senate. In a heavily Republican year, Crist lost to Marco Rubio.
Earlier this year, Crist endorsed President Obama’s re-election bid, leading to heavy speculation that Crist is now a certified Dem and likely to seek the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination for 2014.
A possible Scott-Crist matchup has already become the object of derision, a sign to some of how poorly the state recruits quality candidates for top offices. Scott’s approval ratings have been in the tank since his first few months in office, while Crist got just 30 percent of the vote in his Senate race in 2010.
The bigger focus, though, is on an ideological contrast between them. Scott is viewed by some as an extreme ideologue, a Tea Party loyalist committed to blindly slashing spending — dubbed “Pink Slip Rick” by enraged laid off state employees — while Crist is considered an opportunist who simply follows whichever direction the political winds are blowing, with no core belief system — the purist versus the weathervane, if you will.
Expect plenty of political jokes and insults directed at both men throughout the year.
But I think the criticism is off-base for both politicians. Take a look back at their careers, and you’ll see faults in either off those arguments.
It’s true that Scott, a venture capitalist seeking public office for the first time in 2010, won in part because of the millions he spent from his own personal fortune — and because it was a great year for Republicans. He did run as a Tea Party-style candidate, denouncing budget deficits and excessive federal spending that he claimed was holding back the national economy. Once in office, he slashed billions in state spending, vetoed federal funds for a proposed high speed rail system, and joined a legal challenge against Obamacare.
None of this revived Florida’s economy in 2011, and Scott’s approval rankings tanked. Since then? Looking back, one can see a clear reversal of course in method, policy and ideology.
Scott cut a billion dollars from the Florida Department of Corrections, and even closed state prisons, to pump that money back into education. He rediscovered the joys of federal spending when he urged Congress not to cut NASA on the Florida Space Coast or defense dollars coming to Florida. In another major reversal, Scott agreed to support the SunRail commuter rail line in Central Florida after the local business community lobbied heavily for its passage. It’s tough to be against things that provide jobs, economic development and quality of life — and have a clear constituency that extends beyond cranky Tea Party folks.
Today, Scott is more likely to be touting any new jobs that get created in the state, and he’s been mostly silent on budget cutting and hot button social issues. These days, Scott seems about as much of a Tea Party devotee as incoming Congressman Alan Grayson does.
Scott’s case is a pretty decent example of what a flash in the pan the entire Tea Party movement is likely to become — brought down in such a short time, it seems to me, by two factors, one being the stale whiff of hypocrisy that lingers around the movement.
For eight years, the Tea Party gang was silent as President Bush and a Republican-led Congress turned a Clinton-era budget surplus into a soaring deficit by, among other things, spending $8 billion a week — off the books — on two wars, launching the highly inflationary Prescription Drug Benefit, providing early bailouts to the auto industry and, through TARP, bailouts for bad banking decisions, and using pork spending to entice wayward “conservatives” to vote for key legislation — the most glaring example being the Bridge to Nowhere pork project by Alaska’s Republican delegation. It was only when Obama came into office and launched the stimulus package that the Tea Party gang appeared to have discovered the horrors of deficit spending, with a kind of better-late-than-never attitude.
It’s worth noting that the Tea Party gang was horrified at Gov. Crist for not only embracing the stimulus bill, but also hugging President Obama at a campaign stop in Florida early in 2011 — but had no criticism whatsoever for fellow Republican governers like Rick Perry of Texas and Lousiana’s Bobby Jindal, who denounced stimulus in extravagant terms, then accepted it anyway for their states like greedy little piggies. The Tea Party slogan, then, really became When Democrats use deficit spending, it’s horrible. When Republicans do it, it’s not so bad.
The Tea Party’s other key Achille’s heel has been its giddy delight in nominating shrill ideologues who sing the right songs in the Republican primaries, but prove to be hopelessly unmarketable in the general election — the most glaring example being Christine O’Donnell, a Tea Party fave who beat Delaware’s very Charlie Crist-like moderate Congressman Mike Castle in the 2010 GOP primary, then became a very tough sell in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988.
Similar Tea Party grumps like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado cost the Republicans control of the U.S. Senate in 2010; while this year’s prize went to Indiana Senate nominee Richard Mourdock. He defeated moderate Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary with Tea Party backing, then lost in a state that had voted for Obama in 2008 and was one of only two states to flip against him this year. Why Tea Party activists like Mourdock want to fret publicly about the need to keep rape victims from getting to abortion clinics is beyond me, but it does demonstrate how unappetising rigid ideological purity can be to so many of us.
Which brings us back to Crist. The knock against the former governor is he believes in nothing beyond winning and holding public office, and critics see his latest move as one destined for failure. They point to the fact that another Republican-turned-Democrat, businessman Jeff Greene, badly lost the 2010 Democratic primary (to Congressman Kendrick Meek) for the U.S. Senate race, suggesting that party switchers have limited appeal in an age of party loyalist purity. Perhaps that’s true.
But I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Crist as a weathervane. Did any of us truly believe gubernatorial candidate Crist in 2006 when he told GOP loyaists that he was Pro-Life and anti-Gay marriage — then speedily rushed on to other subjects? The Charlie Crist who ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2010 sounded much more convincing with his newfound live-and-let-live approach to social issues.
Besides, there’s something to be said for centrists who focus on census-building, not fly-by-night hardcore ideological whims. It could be that Crist’s move to the Democrats suggests that, for the moment anyway, that party’s tent looks bigger and more inviting than the current GOP tent does, particularly if Tea Party candidates keep knocking off moderate Republicans in the primaries.
But it’s also worth pointing out that last month, as President Obama was carrying Florida for the second time, Sunshine State voters tossed out a Tea Party hero, Congressman Allen West, while a fellow Florida Republican, Congressman John Mica — who got heavily criticized by Tea Party activists in his primary for backing federal spending projects for this state, including championing SunRail — sailed to re-election. How much more evidence do we need that Tea Party budget-cutting has a more limited audience than initially assumed?
Scott may get challenged, and bounced, in the 2014 Republican primary, and Crist could lose the Democratic primary to the party’s 2010 nominee, Alex Sink, or another longtime party leader. That race is a long way off.
But if it does become a Scott-Crist match, it could be far more of a battle between two centrists than some might now assume.
And if Crist is resurrected politically, it could demonstrate there are a lot more of us not wedded to rigid ideological purity than many party activists on both sides assume. Sometimes pleasing the base isn’t so pleasing after all.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.