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Charlie Crist’s Identity Crisis

Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, is Florida’s version of Michael Bloomberg without the money or sense of humor. Or, it turns out, the consistency or coherence. Bloomberg didn’t have to modulate his positions to switch parties. He ran as a liberal Republican in a city that elects liberal Republicans. He didn’t become more enthusiastic toward big government when he switched out of the Republican Party; he was always a nanny-stater, and merely no longer needed the GOP tag to get elected.

But Crist makes no pretensions toward principle. What does he believe? Who wants to know–and is this person registered to vote? As such, Crist has been changing his political positions to run as a Democrat, and this weekend he went on Bill Maher’s television show to further liberate himself from the burdens of his old self. I use the term “liberate” because of the specific terminology Crist employed:

Former Gov. Charlie Crist announced Friday night he supports ending the American embargo with communist Cuba. Republicans quickly pounced on Crist for switching his position on the issue.

Crist appeared on Bill Maher’s show on HBO on Friday night and called for ending the embargo and his campaign released a statement on his position.

“The embargo has done nothing in more than 50 years to change the regime in Cuba,” Crist said. “If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there, not block ourselves out and cede influence to China. It will take time, and we must do it in a way where American investment helps people, not the dictatorship. But the reality is that no state’s economy is hurt more by America’s Cuba policies than Florida. Changing these policies to allow Florida’s farmers, manufacturers, and construction industry to sell goods and services in Cuba would boost Florida’s economy and help businesses create more jobs in our state.”

Crist agreed with Maher’s assessment that a “small Cuban community” in South Florida had “held hostage” America’s Cuba policies. Maher said Florida politicians needed to “stand up to” the “small Cuban community” and, once again, Crist agreed. “I think they need to,” Crist told Maher.

Crist seems to think of himself as one of those “held hostage” by his beloved state’s Cuban community. Crist’s reversals are numerous. He actually is quite reminiscent of the fictional newsman Ron Burgundy, whose downfall comes when his rival is told how to sabotage him: “Ron Burgundy will read anything that is put on that TelePrompTer. And when I say anything, I mean anything.”

Charlie Crist will read anything that is put on that TelePrompTer. And since he’s gunning for votes–sorry, I shouldn’t say gunning, since Crist has renounced his previous support for gun rights–from Democrats, he’ll happily go on television and accuse Florida’s Cubans of holding the country hostage. (Before you get offended, remember: he probably doesn’t actually believe it. You can tell, because he said it.)

But Crist accidentally said something useful the other night–but not for the reasons he might think–in the course of reading whatever script he was handed for Piers Morgan’s show:

“I think I’ll quote Jeb Bush. He said it better than I ever could. Today’s Republican Party, at least the leadership, is perceived as being anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-gay couples, anti-environment,” Crist said Wednesday on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live.”

It’s useful not for its wisdom, of which the statement is completely devoid. It’s useful as a reminder to Republicans and conservatives that they will all be portrayed as extreme–whether they’re establishment or insurgent. And it’s worth keeping in mind as they read stories like today’s in the New York Times on the “establishment strikes back” narrative. The headline is “Chastened G.O.P. Tries to Foil Insurgents at Primary Level,” but in fact that’s not quite it.

Its thesis is a bit more nuanced, and it’s encapsulated in this sentence from the story:

The Republican Party establishment, chastened by the realization that a string of unpredictable and unseasoned candidates cost them seats in Congress two elections in a row, is trying to head off potential political hazards wherever it can this year.

The party is trying to avoid “hazards,” not conservatives–and that’s important. The story of course mentions the infamous Todd Akin. But as the article makes clear, Republican groups are not out to defend perpetual incumbency so much as keeping the seat in the Republican column.

Inasmuch as the right is in danger of losing seats it should otherwise win, it’s generally in such danger because of bad candidates, not bad policies. And Charlie Crist happens to be a perfect example. Crist was once the establishment candidate trying to ward off an “insurgent” challenge from Tea Party voters. That challenger was Marco Rubio. Who would the GOP rather have representing its principles in Congress right now, Rubio or Crist? To ask the question is to answer it.