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  1. Florida Politics

Florida has seen a leader like Donald Trump before: Charlie Crist

WASHINGTON — And so begins the most unpredictable presidency in modern — if not all — American history.

Anybody who tells you they know what to expect from President Donald Trump, the volatile billionaire who has rarely hesitated to reverse course on policy positions, enemies or even his party registration, is either fooling themselves or fooling you.

Floridians, though, may have a better sense of what's coming than most of America. We've seen this sort of leader up close: Charlie Crist.

Stay with me.

Our Republican governor-turned-Democratic-congressman is far sunnier and more gentlemanly than our in-your-face president. Crist would rather disarm a critic with courtesy and conviviality, while Trump tends to go for nasty personal attacks.

That aside, they have much more in common than striking hair and mysteriously hued skin. Both men fundamentally are populists, rather than partisans. They are less interested in the details of policy-making and governing than the perceptions of Joe Sixpack.

"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again," the newly inaugurated People's President said Friday sounding very much like Florida's People's Governor did from 2007 to 2011.

What this probably means for Washington is a chief executive who will leave the nitty-gritty work of tackling complex policy issues to people who enjoy that sort of thing — Paul Ryan, for instance — while he obsessively monitors and seeks to shape his media coverage.

It means a largely pragmatic president who won't worry about bucking his party's orthodoxy or embracing the opposing party's priorities here and there. There are no core, rock-solid principles for Trump, formerly a registered Democrat and Independence Party member, just as there aren't for Crist, formerly a registered Republican and no-party affiliation voter.

Trump was among Crist's most high-profile supporters and fundraisers a decade ago, and the Pinellas Democrat texted him a congratulatory note after both won election in November. The freshman congressman was on hand to witness the inauguration Friday, and said he liked what he heard.

"I liked the brevity of it and thought he hit a populist tone that was admirable," Crist wrote in a text message.

The Crist leadership lesson in Florida also suggests that so long as Trump's ardent base of supporters remains enamored with him, principled conservatives in Congress won't aggressively challenge the president when they disagree with him. Republicans in Tallahassee (including then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who could be a key obstacle now to President Trump) may have grumbled and scoffed at Crist's moderation behind the scenes, but rarely bucked him openly until Gov. Crist's approval ratings tanked.

Crist never cared if Tallahassee insiders thought he was a shallow panderer on issues from health care coverage to power company bills. What mattered to him was what average Floridians thought, and that's where he aimed his comments and priorities.

Likewise, in the drizzling rain in front of the nation's Capitol on Friday, Trump did not hesitate to insult both Republican and Democratic leaders he will need to help enact his agenda.

"For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost," he said, as former President Barack Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer listened from a few yards behind him.

Trump never shies from a fight, but, like Crist, he has no problem putting them behind him. One day he compares Ben Carson to a "child molester," the next Trump names him housing secretary. He said Rick Perry should be required to take an IQ test before being allowed into a debate and "put on glasses so people will think he's smart" only to put him in charge of his energy department.

Likewise, Crist once called for the impeachment of Bill Clinton only to campaign with him repeatedly years later.

In the end, it is at best debatable how much Crist's populist rhetoric did to improve the day-to-day lives of Floridians, who faced an economic collapse as Crist set his sights on another office. The details never mattered greatly to Crist, and many of his most loyal supporters came to suspect that he was more interested in promoting his own well-being more than theirs.

In that sense, Crist's one term as governor offers a cautionary lesson for our new president. Hubris and narcissism can be politically fatal.

Crist defied low expectations and remained politically successful for so long that when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, he did not recognize the fast-growing threat from Rubio and backlash from his GOP base until it was much too late to save himself.

Trump begins his term without the luxury of high approval ratings, but he does share the over-confidence and record of surpassing low expectations.

A year ago, I asked Trump about his strong support for candidate and Gov. Charlie Crist in 2006 and 2007.

"It looked like he was a super politician," Trump said. "He turned out to be a dud."

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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