Cast-off Crist goes it alone

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; 10:17 AM

Charlie Crist has become a walking, breathing example of how to fumble away a party nomination.

But is he a bumbler -- or a victim?

The national media narrative, while not letting the Florida governor off the hook, is that a right-wing uprising forced an otherwise sensible moderate out of the Republican primary.

But if you're a popular incumbent who blows a 30-point lead to a former state legislator, you have messed up big time.

As everyone knew he would, Crist said Thursday that he would continue his Senate run as an independent.

Crist went the "political-system-is-broken" route. Why is it that, when any pol quits or goes indie these days, that phrase has become the fallback? Weren't they part of the broken system? Charlie was perfectly happy to try to trade up from Tallahassee to Washington as a member of the Republican establishment when he was way ahead.

Now he's Arlen Specter with a suntan.

Crist is trying to pull a Lieberman, to follow the path of the Connecticut senator who was rejected by his own party -- the Democrats, in this case -- and hung onto his seat as an independent. The gov undoubtedly has a broader appeal in November than in a Republican electorate that has swooned over Marco Rubio (who deserves credit for chasing the champ from the ring).

Crist's problem is this: He lacks a rationale. His changing of the stripes looks like naked self-interest. Maybe he's right, as the infamous hug with Obama made clear, that he'll support Democratic or Republican ideas depending on what he thinks his state needs. But bipartisanship isn't a big selling point these days.

The winner here may be the media, which get to cover a potentially exciting three-way race even when the northern weather turns chilly this fall. Assuming, that is, that Crist stays competitive with Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. If he's really lucky, the press might cast him as the biggest comeback kid since Scott Brown.

"Gov. Charlie Crist didn't just walk away from the Republican Party Thursday -- he ran, saying he would abandon his lifelong GOP voter registration as he launches an independent and unprecedented campaign for the U.S. Senate," the Miami Herald reports.

"Left unsaid was the obvious reason for his decision: Former House Speaker Marco Rubio was poised to trounce him in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, in one of the most stunning reversals in Florida politics.

"Crist's widely anticipated announcement was immediately followed by an avalanche of harsh condemnations from most every top Republican in Florida, who accused him of putting his own ambition above all else."

Unlike everyone else in politics?

"The usual campaign script -- with candidates playing to their base in the primary, then moving to the middle in the general election -- aren't relevant anymore," says the New York Times. "The winner in November will might need as little as 34 percent of the vote, and with only 22 percent of the Florida electorate registered as neither Democrats nor Republicans, the most vital question of the race will be: How frustrated are voters with their own party, and how many will stay loyal?"

And how many pundits will stay loyal? The lefty commentators have little use for Crist, and the right now despises him. At the Daily Beast, Reihan Salam exudes disgust:

"After insisting that that he was a diehard Republican conservative who'd never abandon his party, after explicitly stating that he would support the winner of the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate even if he lost, Crist is now set to embark on a quixotic crusade to rescue a decades-long political career distinguished first and foremost for its vacuousness and stupidity. . . .

"Rather than run as the real conservative in the race, the role he tried to play during his primary fight against Rubio, he is standing as the defender of Florida's public sector unions, a powerful army of foot-soldiers that could put him over the top in a tight three-way race. On April 15th, Crist vetoed Senate Bill 6, a top priority for Florida Republicans, that eliminated tenure for new teachers and that linked future pay increases to student achievement. . . .

"Many observers see Charlie Crist as a patron saint of Republican moderation, a sensible pragmatist who has been driven out of his party by frenzied Tea Partiers on a jihad against common sense. Some even suggested that Crist should join the Democrats. This is, in my view, a baseless smear against Democrats, who deserve better than to be associated with the likes of Charlie Crist."

Come on, tell us what you really think.

National Review's Jim Geraghty says the man is a liar, too:

"Perhaps Crist's chances in a GOP Senate primary were doomed the day he agreed to appear at a rally with President Obama as he touted the stimulus. In February 2009, this probably looked like a wise move; the new president was on top of the world, the stimulus was likely to pass anyway, and Crist could earn some points for bipartisanship and courtesy for showing up and hugging the president. . . .

"He could have simply admitted he put too much faith in the good judgment of Obama and the Senate Democrats, and regretted it. Instead, he tried this: 'I didn't endorse it,' Crist told CNN host Wolf Blitzer. 'I -- you know, I didn't even have a vote on the darned thing. But I understood that it was going to pass and I wanted to be able to utilize it for the benefit of my fellow Floridians.'

"For this, PoliFact gave Crist its rare 'Pants on Fire' rating on its Truth-O-Meter."

From the left, Washington Monthly's Steve Benen sees a lurch to the right:

"The 'purge' has been underway for a while now, it's making the Republican Party smaller, more rigid, less reasonable, and far less open to diversity of thought. Crist, apparently, no longer feels welcome in the GOP. Neither did Arlen Specter. Dede Scozzafava was forced out. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett's (R) career is ending because his conservatism wasn't extreme enough for the party base.

"It's possible that the electoral consequences of this will be limited. Under normal circumstances, a party that deliberately moves away from the American mainstream scares voters away. Republicans have all but posted a sign on the door at RNC HQ that reads, 'He-Men Moderates-Hating Club,' which would ordinarily send the electorate running in the opposite direction.

"But that's what makes this year's landscape so disconcerting -- Republicans are only rolling out the welcome mat for hard-right ideologues, but because voters are frustrated with the recession and congressional dysfunction, the GOP is likely to make gains anyway."

At Slate, John Dickerson does the body language:

"The political rules of hugging have changed.

"Crist's downfall in the Republican Party is often clocked from the moment he hugged President Obama in February 2009. Obama, in the early stages of his attempt to reach out to the other party, praised Crist's support of his stimulus spending during a Florida visit, and the governor praised right back. The hug alone wasn't where Crist's transgressions began or ended, of course. But it became a powerful symbol that opponents within the Republican Party used against him. (His opponent launched a Web fundraising page with the picture and a caption that read 'Get the picture?')

"The public presidential hug has a mysterious power. . . . (The most famous presidential hug, between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, was a special case.).

"But starting with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the hug became political poison. Democrats used his embrace of George W. Bush, and Bush's peck on the cheek, to help force the Connecticut senator out of the party in 2006. Democrats used John McCain's hug with George Bush to show that his claims to being a maverick were hollow."

In that case, are high-fives okay?

Candidate Zucker?

Let the record show that I accosted Jeff Zucker in the lobby of The Washington Post.

The chief executive of NBC Universal had dropped by for a chat with reporters and editors, but I wanted to ask about something he had said on Joe Scarborough's radio show: that he might one day trade television for a run for public office.

That's true, Zucker said: "It's funny how much attention that's gotten. It's no different than what I've said all along." He said he would run in New York and that, if he were to take the plunge, "it's all about the timing."

The onetime "Today" producer joked that he would draw far less scrutiny as a candidate than he does running a major media company.

Speaking of that company, Zucker seemed unruffled that in Comcast's successful bid to buy NBC Universal, the broadcast network and the movie studio were deemed to be worth little compared with such cable channels as CNBC, USA, Bravo and Syfy.

"We've thought about it in the past, should we change the name of the company?" But, he added, "it doesn't disappoint us, it didn't upset us that people talked about that [that the cable channels are the real moneymakers]. That's who we are."

Noting that NBC has been first in news but fourth -- perhaps soon to be third! -- on the entertainment front, Zucker said: "NBC Entertainment is 5 percent of our bottom line and 95 percent of our perception."

Conan speaks

Even Zucker hasn't denied that the Jay-Conan mess turned out to be a huge mistake. Now, in his first post-debacle interview, with "60 Minutes," O'Brien says he would not have done what Leno did if he had been the one to hand off "Tonight" to a successor.

"He went and took that show back and I think in a similar situation, if roles had been reversed, I know -- I know me, I wouldn't have done that," Conan tells Steve Kroft in an interview for Sunday. "If I had surrendered 'The Tonight Show' and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well -- and then. . . . six months later. But that's me, you know. Everyone's got their own, you know, way of doing things." Conan said he would have "done something else, go someplace else." He said he couldn't remain with NBC, even at midnight, because he concluded that "this relationship is going be toxic."

At the same time, Conan's ratings plummeted, leading NBC management to conclude that he couldn't broaden his appeal beyond young men.

Pressuring journalists

Is the Obama administration prosecuting leak cases as fervently as the Bush administration? That's what some lawyers tell me after the Justice Department subpoena issued this week to NYT national-security reporter James Risen over his book on the CIA.

Getting Rielle

John Edwards's mistress stepped into the Oprah spotlight, and the interview demonstrated several things: She is no dummy, she is madly in love with the guy, she has a tin ear for how loopy she can sound, and she admits it was a "huge mistake" to pose pantsless for GQ. Ya think?

Alessandra Stanley delivers a poison-pen verdict:

"Rielle Hunter, who told Oprah Winfrey in a program broadcast on Thursday that John Edwards had a secret affair with her because 'he wanted to live a life of truth,' is a tough interview, tougher in some ways than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

"Ms. Hunter and the Iranian president have a disconcerting way of saying preposterous things in a calm, complacent tone; both are serenely impervious to contradiction or sarcasm. . . .

"It was a surreally solipsistic and New Age-ish account, in which Ms. Hunter's 'truth,' as she put it, trumped all other concerns, including all the lying. 'Our hearts were louder than the minds,' is how Ms. Hunter explained her decision to have an affair with a presidential candidate whose wife has cancer."

And their relationship today? Hunter won't say, because it's, ah, private.

Bully's bully pulpit?

In his weekly Obama critique in the WSJ, Karl Rove laments the "troubling rhetorical device [of] Mr. Obama's labeling his opponents as 'special interests,' and demanding that they stop disagreeing with him and get on board his legislative express. Speaking to bank executives, he decried the 'furious effort of industry lobbyists to shape' financial regulation legislation -- a barb aimed at the investment bankers in the audience who have hired lobbyists. The president urged 'the titans of industry' to whom he was speaking 'to join us, instead of fighting us.'

"While criticizing political opponents is standard operating White House procedure, the practice of summoning critics to bully them in public is unpresidential and worrisome.

"Before his health-care bill passed, Mr. Obama sent a tough letter to health-insurance CEOs and then castigated them 22 times in a follow-up prime-time televised speech. This is behavior worthy of a Third World dictator -- not the head of a vibrant democracy.

"Mr. Obama has also excoriated drug and health-insurance companies, while remaining content to have them spend tens of millions of dollars on ads supporting his health-care bill. This smacked of Chicago-style shake-down politics."

Okay, it would be easy to trot out all the instances in which Bush castigated his opponents as threats to American security, for example. But why is it inherently worse to criticize opponents to their face?

Palin's future

At Esquire's new political blog, Tim Heffernan dismisses the prospect of a Palin candidacy:

"Andrew Sullivan remains utterly convinced that Sarah Palin will be the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. I'm equally convinced that she won't even run. To me, it comes down to the practical, nuts-and-bolts reality of being a presidential candidate. There is what Sarah Palin wants, and then there is the pinball machine of the modern American campaign. . . .

"Palin is incredibly unpopular with the general public, refuses to appear before anyone but her fans (Facebook or otherwise), walls herself off from all but the most supportive media outlets, and isn't even the preferred candidate of the Tea Party that forms her presumptive base. This alone makes it hard to see her as a viable candidate. But she's also a fragile narcissist, one who time and again has responded to challenges with the maturity of a toddler. (See: governorship, quitting of.) Can you really see this woman putting herself at risk of another public bruising?,

"Even if the media holds back on Palin -- again, it won't, and 2008's basic question of whether she's a blathering idiot will be the least of what she faces in 2012 -- her adversaries will not. She will, for the first time on a national stage, have her qualities and her morals and her past questioned and attacked and investigated not by the other party or the 'liberal media,' but by her own."

If you discount his obvious distaste for Palin, the analysis makes sense, says I, a member of the she-won't-run punditocracy.

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