Charlie Crist and the Great Triangulation of 2010

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The old cliché that people get the leaders they deserve is usually true—in America, anyway—and rarely as much so as in the curious case of Charlie Crist. Just three months ago, it seemed likely that he would be shuffled off to the private sector, a high-profile casualty of an economic meltdown he helped set in motion. Whether Rubio beat him in the Senate primary or not, logic almost dictated that Kendrick Meek would beat the GOP nominee with a brutal decisiveness worthy of Randy Orton.

That would have been both fair, and fitting. But instead, the embattled Governor of Florida stands at the mid-way point of the most audacious act of political triangulation since Obama’s “Black Caesar” act in 2008. Like Obama, Crist has challenged his party’s establishment and all conventional wisdom, hoping to assert himself amidst utter chaos on all levels of the electoral system. He’s like a surfer, riding waves of boiling-hot water, on a surfboard made of ice—but oh, such balance!

The text of Crist’s announcement, in St. Petersburg on April 29, was amazingly not leaked beforehand, although the essence of speculation proved correct. He is running as an Independent, turning the Senate race into a three-way dance that could be the most entertaining spectacle of what should be a hilarious year.

Crist’s speech was scheduled for 6pm, then pushed back half an hour; the headliner didn’t start talking until 5:51. Insert your own joke here. He might as well start wearing robes with sequins and feathers, and calling himself the New Nature Boy. Some might say he’s been doing that for a long time, more power to him. He’s already got the hair and the rep; all he needs is better enforcers.

Crist’s theme—“Straight To November”—will surely elicit witty responses from the blogosphere, which has been flogging rumors of Crist’s sexual complexity ever since he was a candidate for Governor in 2006. It’s anyone’s guess to as which elements of this broken system will choose to play that card first, or why, but it seems a certainty at this point. The politics of personal destruction, typified by the ongoing campaigns against Sarah Palin, fills a vacuum created by an absence of real debate, just as it did in the late ‘90s, in the years just before 9/11 briefly realigned America’s focus on policy concerns. Crist may be lucky to have hit the national stage just as Americans are getting tired of the Beltway’s parlor tricks.

Whenever the media is openly talking about a politician’s sex life, people should take it as a clue that something else is going on. In this case, Florida is in serious trouble. Both Meek and Rubio erred severely in not linking Crist inextricably to the recession in Florida, even though it would have happened anyway. Rubio is too beholden to the fake conservatives holding down the right to ever question the wisdom of tax cuts, and Meek might be understandably reluctant to point out that, by inducing an economic crisis here, which quickly went national, Crist helped Obama get elected.

The property tax cuts that Crist forced through, to benefit downstate development interests that anchored his 2006 campaign, cut into the operating budgets of most cities in Florida. The I-4 corridor that has dominated Florida politics for three decades draws enough revenue from other sources that their budget issues were neither as dramatic nor traumatic; there was some cushion for the impact of the tax cuts. Things were worse up north, but ultimately bad everywhere: Almost every municipality has had to deal with budget issues during Crist’s term. Services have been slashed, workers fired, taxes and fees raised; longstanding political alliances were torn apart faster than, well, anything that gets between Justin Bieber and his fans. For the smallest counties, the results have been catastrophic—whole departments closed, lifestyles permanently altered.

And it’s only just begun. The budget-wrangling will continue for years to come; rebuilding the state’s revenue base is a generational matter. As for pensions, we’ve been having the relevant discussions in Jacksonville for some years now—John Peyton knows the subject back-and-forth—but the entire country is facing multi-billion-dollar shortfalls that cannot be rectified during a recession that has proven persistent, to say the least. While I question Crist’s decision to go to Washington, for many reasons, here’s one argument in its favor: He won’t be in Tallahassee when the hammer drops.

Crist has shown a real gift for political calculations—witness the way he used his veto of merit pay for teachers to burnish his centrist cred ahead of the party switch. The bill was devised as a fairly-transparent union-busting move, one which undermined the efficacy of merit pay a supplement to fair, competitive compensation for teachers. As Governor, and nominal leader of his state party, he could have pulled just enough strings to keep such weak, ill-conceived and unpopular legislation from ever passing at all, if he felt that strongly about it. He could have intimated to key pols in Tallahassee that he would veto the bill if it did pass, and encourage them to put their energy into any of a number of things that he would happily sign into law.

Instead, he allowed the bill to develop, along with several weeks of accompanying public discord, including protests by thousands of students, teachers and parents up and down the state, who took the time to lobby Crist in a direction he was already leaning. He wasted their time, so he could score political points by sweeping in with his veto pen, like he didn’t initiate the budget crisis that has led to so many teachers having to worry about their jobs. Crist correctly calculated that his move would be seen as an act of heroism, rather than cold, cynical manipulation of women and children.

There is a glut of bland, boring blubber-butts in Florida politics, a bunch of lightweights that are barely shadows of the folks who held their spots a decade ago. Charlie Crist is one of them, of course, but he has found a way to be slightly better than his peers, and that’s pretty much all you can ask of Florida. As for Meek, his chances were low-balled from the get-go by a Democratic Party that began projecting its vulnerabilities before the Obamas had finished one load of White House Laundry.

As Crist and Rubio dove headlong into a caterwauling catfight that leaves the impression that the smoldering hatred for one another is rooted somewhere beyond policy beefs, the odds should have solidified in Meek’s favor. But they haven’t, which left room for Crist to move. Instead of being pressed between Rubio’s hotshot push and Meek’s liberal legacy, Crist made the election about him and not the issues. It became a game of personalities, which is unfair because his opponents have none.

Instead of taking 2008 as a real mandate for change, and then consolidating control of state and local governments, they’re working a rope with no dope. And that is just not how power works. Clearly, Democrats in Washington are reluctant to challenge their friends across the aisle, even if the feeling is not reciprocated or is, in fact, exploited to install a brand new batch of sorry-ass Republicans, already greasy with gluttony, graft and malicious intent. It’s all a replay of 1994. How Obama (and, critically, Rahm Emanuel) have played right into it is a complete mystery to the entire world, and probably themselves. Instead of Crist kissing up to Obama, maybe Obama should be kissing up to Charlie Crist!

sdh666@hotmail.com; April 29, 2010

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