Thursday, November 23, 2017

Charlie Crist's phone rings: It's Obama


Charlie Crist was waiting on a call and had to call me back.

No wonder.

The other caller turned out to be President Barack Obama. The president called the former Florida governor Thursday afternoon to offer his thanks for helping him win re-election. The two men talked briefly about how the voting mess here needs to be fixed.

And before he hung up, Obama told Crist he looked forward to getting together in person to talk about the future.

Of course, that's the juiciest part. Crist won't elaborate on what that means or what he might do next. But I can't see him sticking around a law firm forever and asking folks to call up if they want to say hello.

For a guy who wasn't even on the ballot, last week was a very good week for Crist.

The former Republican-turned-independent picked a winner, nationally and in his home state. Crist endorsed Obama on the Sunday that the Republican National Convention kicked off here, in an exclusive column on our op-ed page. That column remains the most shared item from this year.

The following week, Crist delivered a well-regarded speech at the Democratic National Convention. He traveled the state for the president in a highly visible role in the campaign's final weeks.

Second, look at Florida's election fiasco this year and compare that with Crist's approach to protecting access to the polls as governor. Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Florida Legislature enacted an indefensible 2011 voter law that made it more difficult to register voters and reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. It was a callous attempt to suppress the vote of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic and who prefer early voting to voting by mail.

Parts of the law were overturned by the courts, but part of it worked as the Republicans intended. Early voting was down from 2008, and so was the overall voter turnout. Mail ballots increased. The result: Voters waited for hours in line to vote in Miami and some other areas, and it took days to count the mail ballots.

When Scott was asked to extend early voting, he refused despite the obvious demand. Faced with a similar situation in 2008, Crist readily extended early voting. So he was on solid ground last week to criticize the election mess on Twitter as "not embarrassing. Shameful.''

The post-mortems on why Mitt Romney lost Florida and the nation are predictable. He failed to define himself. He made too many mistakes, from his "47 percent" remark at a private Florida fundraiser to a disastrous foreign trip to a lackluster convention. The changing demographics are working against Romney and the Republicans as younger voters, women and Hispanics embraced Obama.

My favorite excuse, suggested by unnamed Romney supporters on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: Their guy just needed more money and more television ads. Right.

Romney lost because he transformed himself into someone he wasn't to appeal to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. He became anti-health care, anti-tax, anti-women and anti-immigrant. Voters didn't buy it.

"By becoming the party of intolerance and less compassionate, that is a recipe for disaster,'' Crist said. "I really don't think most Republicans approve of that.''

Tuesday was a rout of the radical right in Florida. Obama won. So did U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democratic centrist, over Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV. Voters rejected eight of 11 amendments to the state Constitution proposed by the Legislature, and they retained three Florida Supreme Court justices targeted by conservative groups. Democrats gained seats in the state House, the Senate and the congressional delegation.

Crist knows all about the futility of trying to appease the most conservative Republicans. In the 2006 Republican primary for governor, the once-moderate Tom Gallagher tried to remake himself into a conservative to run to the right of Crist and got killed. Crist moved to the right toward the end of his governorship, signing into law the dismantlement of growth management to appease antigovernment conservatives.

That didn't work, either. Republican Marco Rubio became the tea party darling, forcing Crist out of the party in 2010 and into an unsuccessful Senate run as an independent. Now Rubio is in the Senate, and his name will be tossed around as a potential candidate for president in 2016.

But something tells me Crist's political career is not over — particularly when the newly re-elected president sounds ready to show how much he appreciates his help.


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