The Phony Centrism of Charlie Crist

He's bolted the Florida GOP to run as an independent, but it's hardly an act of courage. John Avlon on the governor's ideology-free opportunism.

Charlie Crist (Larry Downing / Landov)

As an independent and a centrist, I should be a textbook supporter of Charlie Crist’s newly announced independent candidacy for U.S. Senate.

But I’m not—because Charlie Crist confirms the worst stereotypes of a centrist. Instead of being principled in his differences with his party, he is opportunistic.

Most independents and centrists feel politically homeless in our polarized two-party system because they are too fiscally conservative for Democrats but too socially liberal for Republicans. It is a principled position that refuses to conform to the go-along/get-along ideological straitjacket imposed by the special interests in both parties. But Charlie Crist does not represent this courageous tradition with any consistency—instead it is just a pose he is adopting for short-term political gain.

Just because Charlie Crist is now framing himself as the victim of a squeeze from the far right and far left does not mean that he can be trusted to represent the principled interests of centrist and independent voters.

Case in point was his recent veto of a bill that would have brought merit pay to Florida teachers. An education reform backed by the Obama administration, it was predictably opposed by the powerful teachers union. Crist was previously a supporter of the bill, but weeks before his filing deadline—and likely looking for general-election support—he vetoed it. This not only locked the Sunshine State into a failed system while other states back this important reform, but it placed Crist to the left of Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. It is one example of many.

“This is just the latest in a long line of personal betrayals by Charlie Crist,” Florida-based GOP consultant Rick Wilson told me on the day of Crist’s formal defection. “The real challenge is whether the national media gets what Floridians already know: He is a faux-independent—a guy who’s never had a discernible ideology other than ‘how do I get to the next election.’ Charlie Crist has always been a guy of tremendous personal and moral flexibility as long as it serves his personal and political ambition.”

In the two decades since Ross Perot launched his independent campaign for president as a pro-choice deficit hawk, America has seen an increasing number of successful statewide independent candidates.

In the 1990s, there were three radical centrist independent governors—Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura, Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker, and Maine’s Angus King—who was the most successful of all, serving two terms. Following in their footsteps this year, there are three independent candidates running for governor: Maine’s Eliot Cutler, Massachusetts’ Tim Cahill, and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee.

Over the past decade, Joe Lieberman was elected as an independent to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut as a 9/11 Democrat after losing the Democratic primary to anti-war protest candidate Ned Lamont, and outlier socialist Bernie Sanders was elected from Vermont. In New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg was just elected to a third term after declaring his independence in 2008. With the exception of Sanders, all were committed centrist reformers who declared their independence from the increased polarization of the two parties.

One historical reality check about today’s polarization comes in the form of a look at mid-century independent candidacies like Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 and 1972. All were protest candidacies from the far left or far right, because the parties were controlled by their most centrist elements. But as the parties became more ideologically and geographically stratified, the power has moved from the center to the margins of the political spectrum. RINO hunting and DINO hunting have emerged as obsessive sports, and the rebellious position—as well as the open political space—is in the center.

Today, independent voters are the largest and fastest growing segment of the American electorate, marking 42 percent of voters in a recent New York Times/CBS poll. There are now 10 states where registered independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans. Crist’s declaration of independence is big news because it seems to build off this national trend.

But the campaign of Crist’s Republican opponent Marco Rubio has more potential appeal to independent voters than it may seem on the surface. Sometimes portrayed as The Creature from the Tea Party by the national press, Rubio developed a solid record as speaker of the Florida Legislature despite his youth, is an excellent speaker, and enjoys the backing of the still-influential Jeb Bush. More importantly, Rubio’s campaign has focused relentlessly on fiscal conservatism and his compelling biography as the son of Cuban immigrants, while de-emphasizing his more social conservative positions that could alienate centrist independents. He has also come out against the controversial Arizona immigration bill. This combination disassociates Rubio from the stereotypes of the far right while offering a much-needed dose of diversity to the GOP. And it is fiscal conservatism—especially anger at out-of-control spending—that is turning independent voters toward the GOP this fall.

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In Florida, the number of independent voters has grown from some 400,000 two decades ago to over 2.5 million today—explosive growth at a time when the two parties’ registration has essentially flat-lined in recent years. Nonetheless, independents make up only about 20 percent of the state’s electorate.

Crist is correct in assessing that he has a far better chance of winning a general election than a closed partisan primary, where the most activist and ideological voters dominate. Running that gantlet is a thankless task for a centrist candidate in a time of rabid RINO hunting. Open primaries are ultimately more democratic, if you believe that the purpose of a representative democracy is larger than party politics.

Florida remains a quintessential swing state, with the balance of power in elections held in the Tampa-St. Pete area, home of Charlie Crist. The Democratic candidate, Miami-based Congressman Kendrick Meek, is a former state trooper who inherited his seat from his mother. He is considered an unlikely statewide candidate, despite the benefits gained from Rubio and Crist splitting the center-right. But the upshot is that the winner of this Senate race is likely to carry just 35 percent of the popular vote.

Just because Charlie Crist is now framing himself as the victim of a squeeze from the far right and far left does not mean that he can be trusted to represent the principled interests of centrist and independent voters. Any successful political movement requires correcting the worst stereotypes ascribed to it by its opponents—Charlie Crist only confirms them. True independence is the opposite of opportunism—it is a determination to pursue political reform against special interests on both sides. It represents a philosophic consistency that rejects the collectivism of social conservatives and public sector unions alike.

Being a centrist and an independent requires the courage of your convictions against the short-term political expediency of walking in lockstep with the party line. But if you dig below the surface of a newly printed campaign bumper sticker, Charlie Crist has not lived his political life consistent with those standards. That’s why we should resist the temptations of reflexively rallying around a campaign whose independence is more style than substance. As we try to build a coherent centrist and independent movement that rejects the extremes of both parties, we shouldn’t be suckered into automatically supporting Crist’s campaign. Asserting the strength of the center requires standards. That's why it’s time to say "Sorry, Charlie," remembering the refrain from that old song by The Who—"Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

(Disclosure: John Avlon was chief speechwriter and deputy policy director for Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign when Crist endorsed rival McCain days before the Florida primary.)

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.