Is he or isn’t he? After almost two decades in public life, Florida Governor Charlie Crist is still dealing with questions about his sexual preferences. Every time Crist is asked if he’s gay, he gives the same answer: a simple no. There’s nothing defensive or cagey about it. But the questions persist nevertheless, even after Crist married a strikingly attractive woman late last year. To diehard believers in the Crist-is-closeted theory, the marriage is further evidence of Crist’s dishonesty—a naked attempt to distract the voting public from the truth. Similarly, a short-lived scandal over a 1989 paternity claim against Crist is dismissed by the conspiratorial as yet another effort to dupe Floridians.
Crist is not a conservative. With his permanent tan and slick white mane, he’s more like a kinder, gentler Latin American caudillo, who wants nothing more than to be cheered on by adoring throngs.
Like the notion that President Obama is a secret Muslim, the idea that Crist is gay will never go away. Assuming the NSA hasn’t invented a long-distance sexual brain probe that I don’t know about, it is impossible to determine whether or not Crist’s late-night fantasies star a young Jaclyn Smith or a young Tom Selleck. A number of observers are openly wondering if the gay rumor will sink Crist’s chances of holding Mel Martinez’s Senate seat for the GOP. The theory, advanced mostly on the left-of-center, is that gay-hating right-wingers will try to bring Crist down.
It turns out, though, that Florida’s Republican primary voters are more interested in another “is he or isn’t he?”: A growing number of conservatives want to know if Crist is the next Arlen Specter. For a party on the ropes, you’d think Republicans would be less interested in ideological purity. Without Crist or former Governor Jeb Bush in the race, Democrats have long expected Martinez’s seat to fall into their hands like a ripened papaya. But with Crist as the Republican candidate, no Democrat stands a chance. Crist’s Senate run is already being touted as the beginning of a Republican comeback.
Given that GOP high command is praising Allah for delivering Crist unto them, it’s worth noting that conservatives are buzzing about Marco Rubio, the youthful former Speaker of the Florida House. A fluently bilingual 37-year-old Cuban-American evangelical from a blue-collar immigrant background with an ex-cheerleader wife, four children, a deep belief in the healing power of tax cuts, and square-jawed all-American looks, Rubio is a caricature of the ideal 21st-century Republican. With possible behind-the-scenes support from Jeb Bush, Rubio is planning a scorched-earth campaign against Crist as a firebrand conservative standing against the forces of big-government RINOism.
And Rubio, a rare political talent, might actually pull it off, or at least he might leave Crist just bloodied enough to give Democrats the Senate seat in November. Getting there, however, will mean jettisoning much of what is most appealing about Rubio. In the State House, Rubio developed a reputation as a policy wonk interested in overhauling the state’s public sector along the lines that centrist Republicans have pursued in the good-government paradise that is Indiana. This isn’t very sexy, and it isn’t very ideological. But it did suggest that Rubio was more than a Reaganite automaton. The same goes for Rubio’s gutsy and contrarian decision to back the real Republican maverick of 2008, Mike Huckabee. There’s a world in which Rubio should absolutely crush and destroy Crist—a world in which Rubio ran a truly innovative, policy-heavy campaign. Instead, depressingly, we’ll probably see Rubio attack Crist as a Chardonnay-sipping socialist.
One of the key conservative charges against Crist is that his decision to back President Obama’s stimulus package was utterly bankrupt. Crist seemed more interested in currying favor with the state’s army of public-sector workers than keeping the faith with conservative principles. And honestly, that’s exactly right. Crist is not a conservative. With his permanent tan and slick white mane, he’s more like a kinder, gentler Latin American caudillo, who wants nothing more than to be cheered on by adoring throngs. Crist would be right at home with Juan and Eva Peron, dancing the night away and promising free T-bone steaks to the impoverished masses. As governor, Crist has enjoyed tremendous popularity—he has Obama-like job-approval numbers—and he’s done it by hardly ever making tough calls.
There’s no question that Florida is trending Democratic, and it doesn’t help that the state’s economy is sinking into the marshy deep from whence it came. Crist is keenly aware of this, and he’s moved accordingly. In flush times, a decent number of Florida’s must-win Latinos, notably Miami’s highly influential Cuban-American community, were open to small-government Republicans. A punishing wave of foreclosures—which hit Latino families particularly hard—has changed all that. Earlier in his political career, when hard-edged conservatism was on the rise, Crist was known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for backing extreme punishments for convicted felons. Now he’s better known for his efforts to fight climate change and save the Everglades. There’s little doubt that Crist looks himself in the mirror every morning and sees a future president. So why not run for reelection as governor?
Spending has increased steadily throughout Crist’s tenure, yet he has managed to avoid raising taxes. Normally this is a feat that can only be pulled off during a boom, but Obama’s stimulus package gave this strategy, if you can call it that, a new lease on life. Backing the stimulus bill wasn’t just about high-fiving a popular president. It was a way to keep Florida’s Ponzi scheme going. But because the state’s economy is still sinking into the marshy deep, economic pain is guaranteed to sandbag whoever serves as governor for the next four years. Crist, who loves to be loved, intends to make sure that it’s not him.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.