As a piece of political oratory, the short, upbeat speech that ex-Republican former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist delivered at the Democratic Convention Thursday worked pretty well. The perpetually tan politician’s fulsome praise for President Obama and attacks on the GOP may well deliver a few swing voters and perhaps even the state of Florida for the incumbent. But, at the root, nobody — Democrat or Republican — should trust Crist any further than they can throw him. He is a man of no fixed political principles who did a disastrously poor job as Florida’s governor.
The problem isn’t Crist’s decision to speak at the convention of a party he long opposed. Many good people have switched allegiances. Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman was denied his own party’s Senate nomination just a few years after serving on its national ticket and had every reason to support his friend and fellow security hawk Sen. John McCain when he ran against Barack Obama. Liberal Republican Sens. Arlen Spector and Jim Jeffords, along with conservative Democrats Richard Shelby and Zell Miller, found their ideologies unwelcome as the parties became more polarized. (Miller never formally switched parties but did support and endorse a Republican president.) And so forth. All of these people had their reasons and, to a greater or lesser extent, all acted out of principle.
But Crist doesn’t seem to have any principles at all. As a state senator and attorney general, he was “Chain Gang Charlie,” a tough-on-crime, lock-em-up hardcore conservative. He strongly supported second amendment rights. He said he was pro-life. (Although he had also said he was pro-choice when it suited him.) He talked about tax cuts and smaller government. Now he’s an Obama-supporting liberal. But even these flip-flops, of course, can be overlooked to some extent (see: Romney, Mitt).
But his record of governance can’t be. His two major legacies as governor both put Florida into dire straights. On the one hand, Crist tried to cut property taxes through a rejiggering of Florida’s complex system of property tax caps. The new Crist-supported caps didn’t really cut taxes overall for many Floridians — local sales taxes soared in their wake — but did redistribute the tax burden in a way that favored incumbent residents over newcomers while leading to cuts in true core local services like road maintenance when the economy slumped. (Not coincidentally, the state’s population stopped growing for the first time ever soon after they passed.)
But it got worse. In a vain effort to keep property insurance prices low in one of earth’s most hurricane-prone locations, Crist transferred a massive share of the state’s insurance liability to taxpayers by overseeing the expansion of the state-run insurer (Citizens Property Insurance Corp.) and reinsurer (the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund.) These moves, combined with restrictions on the risk factors private insurers were allowed to use in rate-setting, resulted in nearly all major private insurers closing their doors to new business, a flood of fly-by-night Florida-only insurers, and massive new taxpayer liabilities that could end up costing Florida taxpayers billions. Because Florida doesn’t have the money to pay the costs a major hurricane would impose on the these entities, indeed, the state would probably have to default on its debts or seek some sort of court-overseen bankruptcy-like restructuring.
While Crist seems to have a bone of genuine environmental conscience — he’s done some genuinely good work on the Florida Everglades — the environmental consequences of his insurance-related public policy far outweigh the good he did on other issues. By keeping insurance rates far below risk-based market levels, they encourage enormous new development along environmentally sensitive coasts.
The bottom line is simple: Charlie Crist was a bad governor and appears to have no core political principles. While his speechifying may help President Obama and the Democrats, they should learn what Republicans have found out through painful experience: Charlie Crist is a political opportunist with a sorry legacy.