Gov. Charlie Crist's predicament reminds me of a long-ago conversation with Toni Jennings.
Jennings was the relatively new president of the Florida Senate, and she would go on to hold the position a record four straight years (1997-2000) before ending her political career as Gov. Jeb Bush's lieutenant governor. The Orlando Republican was respected by all, a businesswoman in the construction industry who used a warm smile and firm hand to work with both Republicans and Democrats. I had known her for years, and I asked her how she had evolved into a moderate.
I am in the same place I have always been, Jennings replied. Everybody else has moved.
That is exactly where Crist finds himself.
If the governor chooses this week to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate, it won't be because he has left the Republican Party. The Republican Party has left him.
The GOP's big tent is too small now for anyone except those politicians who are angry, ideologically pure and unwilling to compromise. There is no moderate wing of the Florida Republican Party. In Tallahassee, to be center-right is to be a socialist. There are only extremists, and that leaves no room for Crist.
In any other era, the governor's conservative credentials would be in fine order. As a state senator, he forced Gov. Lawton Chiles to acknowledge sleazy campaign scare calls. He was nicknamed "Chain Gang Charlie" by the Times' editorial pages for promoting prison chain gangs. He is a disciple of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, probably the most conservative Republican Floridians ever elected in a statewide race. Crist is pro-gun, antiabortion and never met a tax increase he liked.
That's still not enough for Florida Republican leaders, who are driving Crist into an independent campaign with their constant attacks even as they fear the consequences.
The Republican rabble has two main complaints. First, Crist embraced President Barack Obama and thanked him for billions in federal stimulus money. Of course, that money kept Florida from making even deeper budget cuts, saved or created more than 100,000 jobs and laid the groundwork for high-speed rail. The hypocrisy in bashing Crist and the stimulus dollars even while Republican legislators happily spend the federal money is remarkable even by Tallahassee standards.
Then there is Crist's veto of the education bill this month that would have abolished tenure for new teachers and used high-stakes student testing to help determine teacher raises. It was the mother lode for conservatives, and they took the governor for granted. But Crist courageously vetoed it because the details in the bill did not match the rhetoric or the laudable goals. He also read the public sentiment better than his Republican colleagues. They were paying more attention to busting the teacher unions and rammed the bill through the Legislature without listening to anyone. Crist's ears work just fine, and he should have stood up to Republican lawmakers' excesses much earlier.
Crist bears some responsibility for his predicament. If he had run for re-election as governor, he would have had no serious opponents from either party. If he had appointed someone other than his former chief of staff and campaign adviser, George LeMieux, to keep the Senate seat warm, he would not have looked like such an opportunist. If he had vetoed a bill last year that eroded growth management, he would not have looked so desperate to please the developers and big business he needed for campaign cash.
But Crist also is a casualty of the Republican Party's stampede to marginalize itself into the angry, ultraconservative Party of No. That's former House Speaker Marco Rubio's entire Senate campaign: Run against Obama, health care reform and anything else remotely progressive. Rail against the federal deficit without acknowledging spending cuts alone won't solve the problem. Treat bipartisanship as a disease to be eradicated.
Rubio is a creature of the Tallahassee echo chamber, where Republican legislators are more conservative, more insular and more out of touch than ever. Fiscally responsible, socially moderate, environmentally sensitive Republicans of the sort Pinellas County used to send to Tallahassee are all but extinct. The more extreme, the better.
While Crist signed the bill last year to gut growth management, legislative leaders still would like to kill off the entire agency that manages growth.
While Crist signed the bill requiring Citizens Property Insurance to gradually raise rates, legislators sought to let private companies decide their own rate increases until the governor threatened to veto it.
While Crist opposes Obama's health care reform, he has made efforts to create low-cost insurance plans and discount prescription drug cards and candidly notes the federal law has its positives. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill McCollum has filed a lawsuit against the federal reforms, and Republican legislators put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot aimed at preventing Florida from participating. Never mind Florida's 4 million uninsured residents.
"I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me,'' Ronald Reagan famously said in 1962.
Nearly 50 years later, Charlie Crist could adapt that quote this week to describe his own situation.