Rubio Switches Places with Crist, Becomes the "Establishment" Candidate in a Cycle That Favors the Insurgent
We can never get enough Charlie. That seems to be the pattern. Every time it has seemed prudent to write him off, he comes back, ruling his roost “above the fold” (a newspaper term referring to stories placed on the top half of paper, which represent what the editors think are the biggest stories of the day).
So it is that the biggest political question in Florida today is not longer “will Charlie have staying power” but “why does Charlie have staying power?”
It was common wisdom that the best day of Crist’s fledgling career as an NPA (no party affiliation) candidate would be his first day, but that it would be all downhill from there. He would generate press and buzz for the length of a news cycle and then sink into obscurity as the old order of Republicans and Democrats reasserted itself, leaving Meek and Rubio to duke it out while Crist fed off scraps and acted as little more than spoiler rather than a true contender in the general election match-up.
But it isn’t quite working out that way.
It’s still early to say that independent Charlie will continue to be a viable candidate through November, but if the prognosticators had been right, we should already be seeing the shine come off Crist as his poll numbers drop into the 20s. Instead, Charlie appears to be either maintaining his first place position in the polls or even strengthening it.
Even more amazing, it seems that Charlie will continue to be able to raise money to stay competitive. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that his fundraising hasn’t been severely curtailed or that he won’t find himself on the low end of things for a competitive Senate race in a big state like Florida. What I am saying is that rumors of Crist’s financial death have been greatly exaggerated.
But the real question of the day still has not been answered: how the heck is this happening?
The national mood has been accurately described as trending in favor of Republicans. However, the prevailing mood is not actually pro-Republican and anti-Democrat, but anti-establishment.
The GOP primary between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist was billed (by Rubio’s supporters) as a matchup between a true conservative (Rubio) and a moderate (Crist). This was always a useful fiction, but had little to with reality.
In fiscal terms, Crist was the one using his line item veto to eliminate some (though hardly all) of the bloated pork barrel spending in the budgets Rubio (as Speaker) was shepherding through the legislature. And Crist never even had an RPOF Amex card with which to run up dubious charges (though Rubio was far from the worst offender, in this respect).
On social issues, Crist fell well within the Republican mainstream (he was, of course, once known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for his severe law-and-order-ism).
The only real point of contention was the stimulus, which Crist happily took (as did every Republican in the legislature). Rubio, of course, admits that he would have spent it, too.
The only difference, as regards the stimulus, is one of style or attitude.
Rubio would have taken the stimulus, but would have done so ironically or at least ungraciously.
To quote Clinton, he would have accepted the stimulus, but he would not have “inhaled.”
In other words, hardly a sign of a deep, ideological difference.
So, to get to my main point, Rubio was cleaning Crist’s clock because, even when he was twenty-five points up in the primary, he was still an insurgent candidate relative to Crist, whose long tenure as a statewide figure and current position as governor made him the “establishment.”
But when Crist left the GOP, that all changed.
Crist is now the anti-establishment, insurgent candidate – in other words, Crist is now the one in tune with Florida’s mood.
And Rubio now finds himself in a strange position – Crist’s switch was a bit of political jujitsu that went well beyond just taking him out a primary he was sure to lose. He also put Rubio into a new and uncomfortable position.
Rubio is now the candidate of the establishment. Rubio now represents that usual suspect and traditional power player, while Crist is the candidate of upsetting the system and changing business as usual.
Much has been made of the fact that Crist now seems much more comfortable. Going independent has relaxed him and given him back his mojo. But not enough has been made of what’s going on over at Camp Rubio.
Rubio is starting to look like he’s flailing slightly. His message control is getting
soft. He’s not sure where to go. Does he keep going to tea party events? Does he move to the center? Tack right? Tack left?
As an insurgent, his path was clear. Now, his path to victory is muddled and it’s showing.
Rubio is certainly not a Republican version of Howard Dean, but I think that a limited comparison has merits. Dean was an excellent insurgent candidate for president. He knew how to run from behind. But once he took the lead, his campaign started to fall apart. He was a terrible front-runner, because he didn’t know how to combine front-runner status with outside “cred.” Rubio is learning what that feels like.