Saturday, October 2, 2010

Charlie Crist's Folly

Article first published as Charlie Crist's Folly on Blogcritics

The Democrats are set to suffer huge losses in the midterms. The biggest loser though may well be Charlie Crist.

At one point, Crist was a rising star in the Republican Party. His endorsement help put John McCain over the top in the 2008 Republican primary, and he was touted as a possible Vice-Presidential nominee. Early on in the Senate race, Crist maintained a sizeable lead. His name recognition and high approval ratings made him seem unbeatable.

That was before he embraced the Obama stimulus package. That was before unemployment stayed well above the 8% the Obama administration predicted and before the tea party arose to oppose Obama’s healthcare plan. Crist’s opponent Marco Rubio found himself in the lead. Crist left the Republican primary, but entered the general election as an independent. It’s probably the worst decision he’s made in his political life.

There are a couple of scenarios. The first and most obvious is that Crist ends up losing again in the general election. A Quinnipiac poll had him trailing by thirteen points. In that case, he’s likely done in politics. He’ll never win a Republican nomination for anything ever again. By bolting the party to run as an independent, he showed that he wasn’t a loyal Republican. He’s exposed himself to charges of political opportunism which will also hurt with independents. And Democrats will have a hard time supporting him when they are reminded of the myriad conservative positions he’s taken on the issues over the years.

The second scenario is that Crist wins. But even under this scenario, it’s hard to see him going appreciably further in politics. There will be immense pressure on Republicans from their base to keep him out of the Republican caucus. He’ll never be a Senate majority or minority leader, or a committee chairman or ranking member. Maybe Democrats will take him into the caucus so they can maintain a majority, but that’s no guarantee that he’ll be reelected; just look at Arlen Specter, who lost in the Democratic primaries to Joe Sestak.

Crist certainly has no chance of becoming President anymore. Independents very rarely have electoral success. When they do, they typically have an issue to run on, a regional base, or a charismatic personality. Think of George Wallace or Ross Perot. It’s not clear Crist will have any of these if he ever wants to run for President, which he surely did at some point. Even if he were a successful independent candidate, successful independent candidates simply don’t win.

The best choice for Crist when he began losing the Republican primary earlier this year was to bow out gracefully and throw his full weight behind Rubio. He should have been seen raising money and campaigning for him. Doing this would have given him a chance to win over tea-partiers and conservatives in the years ahead. He would have gained even more goodwill with the Republican establishment by showing that he was a person who really did put party over self.

There is of course the possibility that Crist left the Republican Party out of principle, in which case attacks on him as a political opportunist are unfair. Even in this case, the decision might have made sense on principle; politically, it made none.

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