Charlie Crist, former Republican, former Florida governor, former victim of Marco Rubio's dreaminess, has entered his latest metamorphic stage, formally registering as a Democrat — at a White House Christmas party no less!
I have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. And since this is my blog, I'll elaborate on them in painful detail. That's what the Internet is for.
Feeling 1: Schadenfreude. Crist had already declared himself an independent not too long ago, after the wingnut arm of the GOP more or less kicked him out for making physical contact with President Obama that did not involve fisticuffs or a shiv. But often these Republicans that leave the party to become independents do so to allegedly “remain true” to their conservative principles, unfettered by the lunacy of the rightward-lurching GOP (and yes it often happens after a defeat). Think Lincoln Chaffee, Jim Jeffords, etc.
But to go all the way and become a Democrat, an explicit member of the team opposing the Republicans, rather than becoming some mavericky, above-the-fray free spirit. This is very much in the fray.
So I get a kick out of that. “I used to count myself as one of you, but you're so batshit and evil now, that I'm not only leaving, I'm joining the other side to actively defeat you.” So that's great.
Feeling 2: Skepticism. Crist is someone who, as a politician, is remarkably flexible. One might say “plastic,” in two senses: Both rather malleable, as well as feeling rather inauthentic. Read Halperin and Heilemann's Game Change, and you read about a governor who was so keen to milk every bit of political favor and celebrity that he could out of the 2008 GOP primary process, that he behaved like some kind of electoral coquette, teasing various candidates with the prospect of his (then weighty) endorsement as the all-important Florida primary approached. Rudy Giuliani had all but taken Crist on a honeymoon, when at the last minute, when it was clear Rudy was toast, did he jump ship and back McCain. (And rumors say that he timed his engagement and wedding to ensure he was good-and-traditional-seeming before the eventual nominee chose a running mate. Those rumors also related to questions of his sexuality, which, true or not, only make the timing seem more suspect. But again, this is unsubstantiated — and really, unfair — rumor.)
Of course, when running for Senate and primaried by Marco Rubio, he sold himself as very conservative. When he lost the primary and ran as an independent, he sold himself as a sane, competent moderate. Losing that, he will now sell himself as a progressive with centrist bona fides when he likely runs for another term as governor, just with a different letter after his name.
It's all just so convenient, so pungent with self-preservation and the maintenance of his political relevance. I don't doubt that Crist is not a right-winger, and I certainly think he doesn't belong in the GOP as it currently exists, but he didn't belong in it in 2010 either. Or in 2008. But nonetheless he's spent a career opposing the progressive side of the political wars, and now he wants us to believe that he (presumably) is supportive of, say, a Democratic supermajority in the Senate and a Pelosi-run House of Representatives. That's quite a shift, wouldn't you say?
Feeling 3: Welcoming. Crist has been on the right side of a lot of fights, even a cynic like me has to admit. Often enough, and in the fact of sufficiently fervent opposition from what was once his own team, that it does make me believe that he has a core set of principles, deep down, that even a political chameleon like him just can't deny. While his party was crying socialism, Crist was on the right side of the 2009 stimulus fight (which is what started this whole thing rolling). And in an issue very close to my heart, he's been on the right side of electoral reform, specifically with his very un-Republican support and signing of legislation that restored voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. In a party that was doing all it could to make voting difficult for all but rich white people, Crist wen to the opposite pole and made it easier for folks who had committed crimes and paid their penance to vote. Gutsy. I think that speaks to an innate sense of fairness he has, and it was very heartening for me to see him take that stance.(I've not been able to determine if Crist has ever expressed support for abolishing the Electoral College or adopting the National Popular Vote plan, so if anyone knows, tell me.)
Feeling 4: Worry. While I'm delighted to see the Republican Party lose more and more decent folks thanks to their recalcitrance and insanity, I'm not sure I'm at all comfortable with what it means our two-party system is going to look like over the next generation or so.
First of all, the fact that we have a two-party system is pretty damned entrenched now, so that even if one of those two parties goes completely off the reservation (which I think we can say the GOP has), there's little chance that a third party might rise up to take its place, or even enter the conversation as a viable third choice. That means we're stuck with one of our two major political institutions, one of the two prime generators of candidates and policies, becoming more and more insanely theocratic, xenophobic, homophobic, racist, corporatist, and frankly, unstable. “Apocalyptic” is not an inapt descriptor for the modern GOP, both in terms of religion and in terms of their willingness to crash the entire nation into the side of a mountain if they don't get their way. As more less-crazy folks leave or are booted out (Dick Lugar is on my mind as far as that goes), the more dangerous this already-dangerous party becomes.
I also worry for the Democratic Party. Now, I'm under no illusion that the Democratic Party is a bastion of pure-of-heart, incorruptible progressive heroes. It, like the GOP, is awash in corporate money and has far too large a share of conservatives as it is. But it is, right now, the only game in town if you're a politician who actually wants to govern in good faith. Even if you hate Nancy Pelosi and are queasy about gays, if you want to actually make a play to get some work done for the good of the country, you pretty much have to be a Democrat.
But what that means is that we have a Democratic Party with little that resembles a guiding philosophy beyond not blowing the place up on purpose. It's one thing to have folks like Lugar, Chaffee, Huntsman and others who get branded as “RINOs” or “Republicans In Name Only.” But just because one is a RINO, I'm not sure it follows that it's a good idea for the Dems to welcome with them with open arms.
Being a RINO is not the same as being what I will call a DFAIAP (pronounced “duh-fay-yap”): a Democrat For All Intents And Puposes. Lincoln Chaffee, I expect, is a DFAIAP, and would probably be just fine inside the Democratic Party should he decide to join. But then a couple of years ago, the Democrats gained Arlen Specter, who I would say was really a RINO, but whose politics really didn't square with the Democratic Party (and the party activists seem to agree, rejecting his bid for the Democratic nomination for his Senate seat in Pennsylvania in 2010).
A Democratic Party that welcomes in a slew of RINOs rather than DFAIAPs dilutes itself and weakens its purpose. We already have a party devoted, with laster-like precision and frothing insanity, to the world's plutocrats.(You could argue we have two, but only one of them is sociopathic about it.) What the country really needs is a party that clearly and boldly champions rational, pragmatic, practical, and compassionate policy to counteract the plutocrats. But when one party is Right Wing Crazytown, and the other is Right-of-Center Less-Crazytown, it's not going to be much of a discussion.
I'm not sure, frankly, if Crist is a (former) RINO or a DFAIAP. But the overall issue concerns me. And we may never really know, with confidence anyway. Crist is a slippery one.