A ruby red gambit for Charlie Crist

9 August 2009

So Mel Martinez resigned.  Peter Schorsch has a pretty comprehensive list of reactions here, to which I’m sure he’ll add his own soon.  Whatever I have to say would be fairly boring boilerplate reflecting the fact that I don’t know anymore than the Politico website tells me, and I’m not convinced they know much either.  (They certainly didn’t know about this.)  I prefer to propose a thought experiment.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Grist for it comes from this un-self-consciously ridiculous article at a website called “Red County.”  I’ve not heard of it before, which may not say much, but the quality of this piece doesn’t suggest I’m missing a great deal.  The jist is that what’s best for the Republican Party is to lock down the seat by allowing the strongest available candidate to run as an incumbent.  That means appointing Marco Rubio.  (The article falsely describes this as “beyond fanciful” because it would require Crist to “set aside his ambitions for the good of the party.”  It is in fact beyond fanciful because it belies all reason by suggesting that Rubio is best for the Republican Party.  I could go on, but…)

Now granted, I’m not exactly pulling for a Republican win.  But I would certainly prefer Crist if I had to have one of them.  (Available data suggest a lot of Republicans agree.)  Rubio would certainly be an easier target in the general election, but not Katherine Harris-easy.  Indeed the fact that the opposition to incumbent Bill Nelson was so weak in 2006 means that in terms of statewide politics we really don’t know what the race will look like (though the fact that Harris kept Nelson to 60% despite being just a touch nuts doesn’t bode well).  There’s no indication yet whether turnout will be permanently up but my instinct is that it probably won’t, and chances are that 2010 will look more like 2004.

Now this is bad for Crist.  Martinez was the more conservative of the two candidates in 2004 and in some ways less well-known; Bill McCollum was a Congressman who had stood against Bill Nelson in 2000, losing narrowly in a fairly narrow year but acquitting himself well-enough.  (He’s now Attorney-General and the prohibitive nominee for Governor.)  Martinez was of little repute until he became HUD Secretary and even then sailed in mostly on the strength of Bush’s coattails.  What a strange idea that sounds now.

While Bush may be gone, conservative street cred still counts for something.  Crist, like McCollum, comes up short here, and Florida has an unusually-conservative primary electorate.  Polls being what they are this far out, they lie.  And money burns.  Rubio holds a lot of cards as an insurgent candidate, most importantly the fact that he’s not in office.  He doesn’t have to do much of anything at all, while Crist is trapped in the governor’s mansion compromising and splitting differences.  Not popular measures amongst the diehards.  Even Rubio’s low name ID may be an advantage: he was a disaster in office, like the rest of the Republican-dominated legislature, but nobody really knows it.  People are movable on him.  You already have an opinion about Crist, and his relative popularity belies his electoral weakness: against a poor campaign in 2006 he barely cleared 50%.

So I wonder: perhaps the nutter at Red County is right.  Maybe Crist should appoint Rubio to Martinez’s seat, not in order to sacrifice his ambitions but rather to further them.  It’s a very calculated risk, of course, but my sense is that Rubio’s biggest strength is his ability to sit on the sidelines and snipe.  Forcing him into the poisoned chalice of office would drag him back down to Earth, forcing on him the difficult decisions that elected officials have to take for granted (and which challengers like Rubio cynically exploit).  Rubio could hardly say no: it would reek of ducking responsibility which would play poorly for a “true conservative.”  As a freshman senator with no seniority I doubt he’d gain much traction and frankly he’s totally unprepared to face a situation like the US Senate – when he was Speaker of the Florida House the chamber was nearly 2/3 Republican and even then he’s got little to show for it.

It’s not as if appointing a placeholder is without risk, too.  I sense that people might find it a bit alienating to be a tossed a benchwarmer for these crucial two years.  Appointing Rubio would give him much needed press, it’s true, as well as the opportunity to vote against the entirety of the Democratic agenda but it would also be a legitimate and forceful political appointment and would focus attention on who he is and how he would behave in office.  The vaunted benefit of “incumbency” would be little use against Crist, and two years is a long time for a relatively inexperienced, undistinguished and unscrutinized state politician like Rubio to go without faceplanting all over the Rotunda.  My sense is that he’s so deep-red conservative and unaccustomed to moderating it that he would do just that.  Giving Rubio precisely what he wants might be the easiest way to take him out of the running.

Likely?  Hardly.  And extraordinarily risky.  (What if Rubio shines?  What if his votes are both ideologically-consistent and popular?)  But it would not be the strangest move the past year has seen.  It could just be a notion of subtlety and cunning.  If nothing else it doesn’t require a long period of hemming and hawing like David Paterson required.  There’s something Alexandrian in its simplicity.  That’s probably why it won’t happen.

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