Could Charlie Crist wake Florida Democrats up to economic reality?
As Florida Democrats gear up for the 2014 Election cycle, the party continues to stumble with its economic messaging, lacking consistency and conviction in discussing the issues that impact the lives of everyday Floridians. While many Democratic activists and political operatives connected to the party’s messaging are very forthright and aggressive when putting forward views on divisive social issues (like gun control, gay marriage and anything related to race) they seem less willing to deliver a concise message on economics instead dabbling around the edges of the issue, perhaps in deference to campaign contributors and Tallahassee lobbyists.
With Charlie Crist currently the leading Democratic contender for Governor, perhaps the time is now for the Democrats to change their messaging and finally put to rest the type of campaigns that have seen the party accumulate the worst record in state elections of any major political party east of the Mississippi River since 2000. Crist’s candidacy has left many, myself included uncomfortable but as I continue to witness the adrift nature of the messaging of Florida Democrats it becomes more apparent that Crist can be part of a solution to problem that hasn’t been fixed for over a decade- the Democrats unwillingness to take on tough economic issues in an aggressive statewide manner.
Much of the success of Democrats in the south prior to recent years rested on economic populism. In the late 1800s the populist movement grew in the rural south and midwest claiming William Jennings Bryan as its hero. Bryan, who eventually retired to Florida was nominated three times for President. Woodrow Wilson and William Gibbs McAdoo were classic populists though in today’s terms their views on race, religion and prohibition would deem them arch-conservatives. But the working people of the nation tired of Wall Street, big business and other excesses of capitalism flung to populist Democrats and progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, Robert LaFollete and George Norris.
While Democrats continued to advocate more liberal economic policies, nationally since the 1960s the party has moved to right on economics (while moving dramatically to the left on social issues). In Florida, the situation is even worse and what is disappointing is in a time of economic despair when the establishment Republicans have failed time and again to deliver on their promises to bring jobs to the state of Florida, the Democrats other than throwing stones have not clearly defined who they are and what they would do on these issues- Charlie Crist can perhaps be the agent of change on this matter, coming to the party with no baggage of his own on these matters and knowing that the corporate class in this state is firmly behind his opponent, Governor Rick Scott.
Snickers are already apparent with regards to Crist’s campaign among Democrats. While the campaign launch for the former Republican Governor has not been smooth, he has an opportunity to clearly define who he is, what he stands for, why he’s converted politically and perhaps move the party into a better position as well. Charlie Crist has been wrongly counted out before by the political establishment of both parties, but no question exist remains a heavyweight in Florida politics and the desperation of a party that has not developed its own bench of quality candidates or a definitive statewide brand identity may lead to rhetorical changes in time for the 2014 election.
The Democrats have lost 13 of the last 14 statewide races for Governor or Cabinet offices, a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter to try and regain a foothold at the highest levels. While Crist’s record in the past is not in line with progressive views, should he continue his long-term advocacy of Environmental Protection, understand that Reproductive Rights is in fact an economic and not social issue for women and continue his populist rhetoric from the past he could provide solutions for the party.
Crist is perhaps the savviest politician in the state. In 1998, he wisely challenged unbeatable Democratic Senator Bob Graham but used the race to get his name out. In 2000, he ran for an office that was being abolished within two years, Commissioner of Education in order to further his name ID statewide. It was in that race, while running several counties for the Democratic nominee, George Sheldon, I observed Crist’s unique qualities on the stump and one on one with voters. Previously, I had been highly tainted by the Tallahassee crowd I worked with, many of whom viewed Crist as a perennial lightweight and in some cases a figure comedy. That same crowd mocked Crist’s Attorney General credentials noting he had failed the Florida Bar exam multiple times and that the establishment GOP primary candidates (Senator Locke Burt and Solicitor General Tom Warner) were more qualified to be the state’s top law enforcement officer. Crist beat both of them and Democratic nominee Buddy Dyer, handily, demonstrating incredible political skills and an uncanny grasp of voters concerns in the process. Fast forward to 2006, and many Bush loyalists displeased with Crist’s performance as Attorney General,( where he played populist and shifted position frequently) opposed his nomination but he won both the primary and general election with ease.
For the first time in Crist’s career, he hit a brick wall in 2009 and 2010 as National Republicans and assorted right wing pressure groups coalesced behind the candidacy of Marco Rubio for US Senate. Given Crist’s ability to change political positions and ideology on a dime, both Crist and many elected Democrats wisely sensed an opportunity but bumbled and stumbled all over its execution, leaving a US Senate seat in the hands of the dangerously ideological and telegenic Rubio. In hindsight, Rubio may have been unbeatable in a partisan GOP tide, but any chance the Democrats or Crist had of stopping him were blown early on, and what resulted was damage to Democratic morale and divisiveness throughout the state.
To doubt Charlie Crist was once a partisan Republican is foolhardy, and would involve a significant re-writing of history. In 1995, as State Senator he held up Governor Lawton Chiles most critical appointments until the final day of session for strictly political reasons. The same year he initiated a Senate investigation of campaign calls made by the Chiles campaign. In the long history of political campaigns, dirty tricks have been conducted over and over again. In the very same election GOP nominee Jeb Bush accused Governor Chiles of being soft on crime while shamelessly exploiting the family of a murder victim in a TV ad. But it was Chiles that was accused of dirty tricks by Crist in a politically motivated investigation which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.
In 1996, he helped lead the Republican opposition to Governor Chiles landmark lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry and then a year later, Crist conducted another partisan witch hunt, this time against the attorney’s who bravely represented the state in the Tobacco Lawsuit. By 1997, Crist was firmly viewed within the halls of the Legislature as a show horse and a partisan. But beginning with the aforementioned 1998 US Senate race, Crist began a transformation from partisan Republican to political pragmatist who felt the pulse of Florida’s electorate.
For almost 15 years Crist has been for lack of a better term a populist. In this day and age populism can mean anything from Rick Santorum’s attacks on snobs and intellectuals, or Dennis Kucinch’s attacks on war mongers. But for Crist, populism is simply reacting to the nuances and anger of Florida voters, be it on gas prices, insurance rates or education cuts. This is the sort of messaging Florida Democrats need to start articulating with more aggressiveness.
Perhaps Crist can help define an ideology for a Democratic Party that in Florida lacks any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats. Simply put, many Florida Democrats do not understand the state’s voters and the need to formulate a positive policy agenda even though throughout in the period since 2000 when the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, the Democrats have held a significant statewide registration advantage.
I was never in love with the idea of Crist running for Governor as a Democrats, but if he does the right things and begins moving the party towards a more aggressive posture on economics, he would have done his job well, regardless of whether he wins or losses the election.