Florida: Charlie Crist and the Perils of Flip-Flopping

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From left: Joe Raedle / Getty Images; Lynne Sladky / AP

From left: Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Representative Kendrick Meek and former state house speaker Marco Rubio

Florida governor and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist admires Abraham Lincoln — not because it's the political thing to do in America, he insists, but because he's long aspired to be the kind of moderate, consensus-building conservative that the most hallowed member of the Republican Party was. And yet, it seems these days that Crist has forgotten one of his hero's most famous quotes: "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time."

Since the Aug. 24 Florida primaries set up a dramatic three-way Senate race between Republican Marco Rubio, Democrat Kendrick Meek and Crist — who bolted the GOP this year to run as an independent — the governor has all but ignored that last part of Lincoln's advice. Crist's bipartisan style has always drawn charges of opportunism. But in the past two weeks, his flip-flopping has felt more conspicuous than Florida sun glare, especially on federal health care reform, which he not long ago opposed (when he needed GOP primary votes) but recently said he would have voted for (now that he needs Democratic general-election votes) then again said he opposed. Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino even suggested last week that Crist's stances on issues from offshore oil drilling to gay adoption seem as varied as the answers you get from one of those Magic 8-Balls.

Crist is still the front runner in some polls. But he risks appearing a caricature of centrism instead of its champion. And in the process, with Arizona Senator John McCain having sold his moderate soul to win re-election this year, Crist is undermining not only his own Senate campaign but also the survival of one of the country's most endangered species: the Lincolnesque pragmatist who can offset our hyper-partisan politics.

Crist used to do it better than this. When he won the governorship, in 2006, he got kudos for adroitly blending his conservative tough-on-crime reputation as "Chain Gang Charlie" with his more liberal pledge to make it easier for Florida's convicted felons to regain their voting rights. As governor, he pleased Republicans with one of the largest property tax cuts in Florida's history while buoying Democrats with a green agenda that included a historic land purchase from Big Sugar to save Everglades restoration. The sort of across-the-aisle civics Americans used to take pride in — and got things done with — didn't seem so dead, especially with high-profile pols like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the movement as well. Crist's approval ratings neared 70%, and he was hailed as a shoo-in for the GOP Senate nomination.

But when the recession produced Florida's highest-ever unemployment rates last year, the state's Tea Party–tinted Republican base turned on Crist and lifted Rubio, the state's smart former house speaker, on its shoulders for the open U.S. Senate seat. Crist pivoted desperately rightward, distancing himself from his earlier support for President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus. Then, as if realizing that he was bound to lose not just the primary but also his principles, he went indie last spring and rediscovered his moderate mojo.

When I last spoke with Crist, in Tallahassee this summer, he confidently rejected charges that he'd flipped weeks before by vetoing a GOP-crafted teacher accountability bill that he'd originally backed — but whose final version, he told me, "tried too hard to punish public schools rather than reform them." Republicans accused him of kissing up to the state's teachers' union, but his decision resonated with enough Florida voters — a fifth of whom are also independents — to help keep him atop the polls this past summer in the general Senate race.

Now, however, with that Nov. 2 election less than two months away, Crist seems rattled again — but this time is swiveling leftward. That's due largely to the surprisingly resounding primary victory last month by Meek, the popular Miami Representative who had to fend off an upstart challenge by billionaire businessman Jeff Greene. Had Greene won, or had Meek won less convincingly, Crist could have looked forward to poaching more Democratic votes than seems likely now. Hence his suddenly improved feelings about the health care measure, which earlier this year he decried as a Big Government affront, but which on Aug. 27 he said was something he "would have voted for," even though he thought it "could have been done better."

To muddle things further, Crist then issued a statement saying he "misspoke" and that no, he would have actually voted against the bill. He proceeded to render more confusing his stances on questions like gay marriage, what party he'd caucus with if he were to get to the U.S. Senate and whether he should return campaign money that was donated before his break with the GOP. Rubio, meanwhile, has surged ahead in some polls.

To be fair, Meek and Rubio — who said that he too would have taken Obama's stimulus money before he condemned Crist for supporting the appropriation — have their own inconsistencies to answer for. But if Crist keeps this up, he could not only lose the election but discredit the moderate and independent cause he stands for by making it look like a refuge for the position-challenged — as Obama himself is so often accused of doing. A big part of Crist's appeal is his insistence that the best policy convictions aren't shackled to myopic ideology. But even the dogma-free politician, as Lincoln was, eventually has to take a stand and lead. Because you can't please all the people all the time.