Charlie Crist Is Back – and Democrats Are Smart to Take Him In

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Charlie Crist
Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / MCT / Getty Images

Former Gov. Charlie Crist waves to the crowd gathered for the inauguration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., Jan. 4, 2011.

It’s hard to believe now that the GOP ever allowed such a thing. In 2007, the host of a major climate-change summit was none other than Florida’s then governor — and then Republican — Charlie Crist. “If you go back to Republicans’ roots,” Crist told me on the eve of that Miami conference, whose featured speakers included Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson, “there’s a strong conservationist bent. It’s important to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of party affiliation.”

That sounds positively quaint today, especially after the GOP’s rabid right, at least in Crist’s telling, shoved him out of the party in 2010. But Crist was serious about reaching across the aisle — and he was a national standard bearer for political moderates. In fact, the most partisan speaker at his 2007 summit was a Democrat, Robert Kennedy Jr., who attacked Republican President George W. Bush and shattered the gathering’s nonpartisan tone. It was a useful reminder that divisive self-righteousness isn’t always a Republican problem.

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Which is why, in spite of the wariness among liberals, it’s a good thing for President Obama’s party that it invited Crist to speak this week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. For starters, Obama owes Crist a favor: Crist’s plunge from Republican grace began in 2009, when he not only backed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus but also gave the Prez a hug onstage. A year later, facing a tough U.S. Senate primary battle against Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, Crist bolted the GOP, insisting that extremists had hijacked it. As an independent, he lost to Rubio anyway. Since then, Crist, once one of Florida’s most popular chief executives — called the Sunshine Governor for his George Hamilton tan and tireless optimism — has lived in a political wilderness. Now, by endorsing Obama for re-election, Crist just might be making a comeback as a Democrat.

You could call him Charlie Chrysalis — a pol who started out as a red caterpillar (known in the 1990s as Chain Gang Charlie for co-sponsoring a Florida law that revived prison labor in leg irons) but who liked to munch on purple foliage such as stem-cell research and restoring voting rights to felons, and then spent two years in a no-party-affiliation cocoon. Now he looks set to emerge as a blue butterfly, his last phase of metamorphosis. Detractors will say he’s more of an opportunist than anything else. That might be true, but Crist, 56, doesn’t have too many options left. Conservative Democrat was his destiny. And the Dems should welcome him in.

Crist’s centrism suits the less dogmatic ethos that Democrats believe will spell the difference for Obama on Nov. 6. As a prominent Democrat told my colleague Joe Klein this week, “We’re now the party of pragmatists, and the Republicans are the party of ideologues.” In spite of the nation’s protracted economic malaise, the Dems insist that the conservative juggernaut that demolished them in 2010 was more spasm than trend. Either way, appealing to swing voters like independents, Latinos and women — blocs that Crist usually won over in Florida, where independents make up a fifth of the electorate — will be crucial in November. That means the Democratic Party should make use of every Clinton/Blue Dog/Democratic Leadership Council type it can get.

That kind of center-left politics is certainly better designed for barnstorming Florida, where winning is a sine qua non for both Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney — and where the two are tied. There, for example, the Obama campaign has to contend with the fact that 55% of independents oppose the President’s signature Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, according to a July Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll. (Overall in Florida, 52% oppose Obamacare, while 43% support it.) It’s also truer to the sort of postpartisan approach — favoring “sensible compromise,” as Crist wrote in an op-ed endorsing Obama last month, over “extreme rhetoric” — that will come in handy after the election, when both parties will have to grapple more flexibly with pressing fiscal issues like the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

Then there’s the 2014 Florida governor’s race. The Democrats’ chances ought to look good: current Republican governor Rick Scott, the Tea Party tycoon who spent $75 million of his own money to win the 2010 contest, has proved to be one of the country’s most unpopular governors. But if there’s an outfit feckless enough to blow that opportunity, it’s Florida’s Democratic Party, which hasn’t won a gubernatorial election since 1994. So as Miami Herald political writer Mary Ellen Klas has noted, Crist’s endorsement of Obama — timed to rattle the GOP on the eve of its national convention in Tampa last week — may also be an early salvo on his part as Scott’s Democratic challenger.

Crist would be the Florida Dems’ first strong gubernatorial candidate in two decades. He may have baggage in the state, not just for his protean politics (as governor, he was accused of flip-flopping twice on offshore oil drilling) but also for controversies like his relationship with former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who faces trial on fraud and money-laundering charges. But Crist is still well regarded by Florida voters, including traditional Democratic constituencies like African Americans, who gave him 20% of their vote in 2006, the most a Florida Republican has ever received.

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Which begs a larger question: Could a Crist comeback mean a revival of the more moderate, bipartisan politics we’ve given up for dead in the U.S.? Probably not, at least in the short run. But Crist’s backing of Obama, himself a believer of postpartisan governance, does help the President’s re-election prospects. And if Obama wins, which will likely have to include winning Florida, it will be a vindication for Crist, who in his Tampa Bay Times endorsement insisted that he stood with Obama on the stimulus in 2009 “because uniting to recover from the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes was more important than party affiliation.”

That sounds familiar. And if things go Obama’s way in November, it might not sound so quaint.