Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lessons from Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist

One thing that people on both sides of the political debate can agree on is the need for sincerity in public service. The staunchest advocate of one philosophy respects the integrity and forthrightness of those who sincerely advocate for a contrasting point of view, if only they do so without a side agenda.

In today’s climate, the most able politician is politically inept if he or she does not possess a sincere and well thought out viewpoint. That is a good thing and a new reality that is long overdue in coming.

The cases of Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist prove this point. Both saw their political careers wane for two separate reasons. Specter’s was due to the perception of opportunism and Crist’s is due to the reality of same.

Specifically, Arlen Specter has always presented himself as a liberal Republican. He wasn’t arrogant about it and while he voted according to his own viewpoint, one that often seemed not to be clearly thought out and that was based on emotion or acquiescence to conventional “wisdom,” he did so without foisting his opinions on others or trying to liberalize his party.

Specter’s walk across the aisle was belated and came twenty or thirty years too late. Just as moderates in the Democratic Party started crossing the aisle in the early 90s, Arlen Specter should have done a reverse crossover. Switching parties is hard, but it should be done out of fairness to voters if a politician’s worldview is so out of touch with the mainstream of his party so as to warrant it. Had Specter followed such a course twenty years ago, he might still be in the running today.

Charlie Crist is a different story. When he first ran for governor, his ads featured him as “the true Reagan Republican.” This slogan was seen as a joke by those who were politically astute, a perception that was further belied by Crist’s condescending attacks on primary opponent Tom Gallagher’s sincerely held socially conservative beliefs during the gubernatorial debates.

Charlie Crist was on all sides of each issue. He would say that he was a “pro-life” Republican but then said that he would not take any measures were Roe v. Wade to be overturned (with the effect of keeping all abortions legal in the State of Florida, including those done merely for post-contraceptive reasons). What both proponents and opponents of legalized abortion agree on is that they don’t want to be lied to by politicians on where they stand on either side of the issue. Triangulation may have seemed to be in Charlie’s immediate interest. In the end, it was his undoing.

Charlie’s liberalism wasn’t lost on close watchers of the race. Friends of mine in local media happily told me, “I’m a Democrat but I’m voting for Charlie Crist.” In return, I was tempted to tell them that for perhaps the first time ever I’d like to personally encourage them to vote for someone in their own party instead.

If a candidate can’t be honest with voters on heartfelt issues of importance, the likelihood of them being honest on matters of the economy or the like is slim to none. And such was the case with Charlie Crist.

When Crist first announced his Senate bid (leading Marco Rubio 53-8 at the time), I spoke with someone who was not only well connected within the state Republican Party, but who I consider to be an honorable public servant whose political perceptions are better than most. He agreed with my supposition that Crist would have trouble in the primary, but contended that he’d have “no problem in the general.” I disagreed.

I pointed out that all that his Democrat challenger would have to do is to beat a drum that the so-called “People’s Governor” had campaigned on two promises: to cut property taxes and to slash homeowners insurance rates. Once elected, Crist passed an entirely insignificant cut on property taxes while failing to take other measures to bring meaningful relief. As far as insurance rates went, he actually upped rates twice, most recently by 10%. To the detriment of homeowners, no free market solutions (or those of any other kind) were ever introduced. Now Crist’s Republican opponent can and should have fun using the same playbook.

Most important of all, here’s the lesson that voters should take from the Charlie Crist debacle. If those who seek public office seem to rely on slogans instead of substance, don’t vote for them. If they seem to be pandering to every group imaginable, understand that the same people will accomplish nothing for anyone, nor do they have any interest in doing so.

If you can’t trust a politician as far as you can throw them, what’s the use in listening to anything that they say, especially when far better alternatives exist? Your vote is something that should be used to better the country and to send a message as to what form of government you want to see in place. Wasting it on blatant opportunists, no matter how much pomp and circumstance may surround them, benefits no one and is the reason why our governmental “leaders” are what they are today. The nation deserves better and each vote counts. So use it wisely.

There are plenty of junior Charlie Crists in the making. And there’s no greater disservice to the nation than to allow them to succeed. This year is truly the year of the grassroots and a year in which activism and the voice of the people can and will help change this nation and elect people of conscious. The importance of getting involved and of choosing principle above politics (and principled candidates with a track record of real community service and a compelling political philosophy) cannot be overstated.

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