Charlie Crist, the man without a party, still manages to find a way to be invited to one and deliver a message. President Barack Obama's invitation to the former Republican governor to speak at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday was attacked by Republicans in Florida and elsewhere as a desperate act by two self-serving politicians. But the reality is that Crist has a message to deliver about pragmatic governing based on consensus-building rather than ideological purity. When he felt unwelcome in his own political party, he left and changed his voter registration to no party affiliation. And that says more about the modern Republican Party than it does about the former Florida governor.
Crist said Tuesday that he will strive in his speech before an anticipated 65,000 people in a football stadium to give "a fuller perspective on (Obama's) wonderful leadership." And taken outside the partisan prism, it's not that surprising that Crist is backing Obama over the Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
As Florida governor from 2007-11, Crist's moderate agenda had more in common with the current Democratic platform than the stridently conservative one Republicans approved last week in Tampa at the Republican National Convention. Crist supported immigration reform, embraced stimulus funding as a way to keep Floridians working, backed public school teachers, sought to set a new alternative energy standard for the state to address climate change, provided a path for felons to get their civil rights restored, and even kept the polls open longer in 2008 for early voting.
Contrast that with today. In Florida under Gov. Rick Scott, Republicans have made it harder to register to vote and cast ballots. The governor rejected $2.4 billion for high-speed rail linking Tampa to Orlando, and he and legislative leaders have refused to accept millions in federal money for health care reform and to help low-income pregnant women. Scott signed a budget that cut $1.3 billion in public education last year, then bragged this year that the state had increased education spending by $1 billion when the truth is that Florida is still spending less on education than when he took office.
Of course, Crist is not wholly in line with Obama and Democrats — which actually makes his appearance more refreshing. He has repeatedly opposed raising taxes and gun control. He is no supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage. But on social issues, he has been a live-and-let-live lawmaker and has said the current GOP platform outlawing all abortions goes too far. Crist is a populist, and there is little room for populists anymore in the Republican Party.
Some have seen Crist's defection to Obama's camp as opportunistic, giving the possible future candidate a chance to address a national audience. But the real importance of Crist's presence is as a symbol of moderation and cooperation. Americans from different perspectives can work together for common goals toward a better future, even if they don't agree on everything. That is the antidote to extremism, writ large.