Gov. Charlie Crist says his run for the U.S. Senate as an independent candidate is liberating and allows him to take positions that are true to his personal principles rather than Republican orthodoxy. Washington certainly could use more pragmatism and less partisanship. But Crist has to be careful that his flexibility does not become a liability.
It's one thing to have a change of heart after some reflection. It's another to have one in a couple of hours. On health care reform, Crist told an Orlando television station recently that he would have voted for the bill that passed Congress, even though he opposed the plan in the past. Two hours later his campaign said Crist "misspoke." The statement clarified what Crist has said in recent interviews: the federal legislation has flaws, but it does have some positive provisions that should be kept — such as the ban on insurers rejecting those with pre-existing conditions. It is a reasonable, nuanced position that he needs to be more careful in explaining.
Then, on CNN, Crist said he continues to favor a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That sent his campaign into clarification mode again, saying that Crist meant that he continues to support Florida's ban on same-sex marriage but a ban should not be added to the U.S. Constitution. He should have gotten that right the first time.
Crist deserves credit for being willing to change his position based on new information or more reflection. He now favors allowing gay residents to adopt children. He vetoed the controversial teacher tenure bill that he supported in concept until he became aware of the details that made it too arbitrary and punitive. That is the courageous stand that cost him Republican support in Tallahassee and drove him out of the party. He also vetoed a bill that would have required ultrasounds for all women seeking abortions, even though he describes himself as prolife.
On oil drilling, Crist has also evolved. He went from being opposed to drilling to being open to it when he was under consideration as John McCain's running mate in 2008 and "drill, baby, drill!'' was the GOP rallying cry. After the BP oil spill, he smartly returned to the opposition. Even the most ardent drilling supporters now acknowledge that expanding drilling should be off the table for the time being.
Crist's moderate, centrist leanings reflect where most Floridians stand instead of the most partisan positions from either Democrats or Republicans. To some extent, his recent fumbling can be chalked up to trying to navigate the uncharted waters of an independent campaign searching for votes from all camps. The safety net of a political party's platform is gone, and there is no familiar script to follow.
There is gridlock in Washington, and Crist has a golden opportunity to forge a middle path of pragmatism and moderation. But he needs to get his story straight.