Bob Graham reinvented his leadership style. It may be time for Gov. Crist to consider a similar shift.
“Taxes are going to drop like a rock.” — Gov. Charlie Crist’s promise to Floridians earlier this year.
Charlie Crist, never much of a policy wonk but an indefatigable politician, always seemed likely to govern with his finger in the wind and his eye on the cameras. And not too much in the last 10 months has proven otherwise. Crist has bounced off the headlines but left the harder issues to others. We’re inundated with platitudes without specific commitments. He has overpromised and underdelivered.
You have to give Crist credit for a lot of things. He exorcised the arrogance and partisanship of the Jeb Bush years. He showed a strong thematic commitment to open government. He embraced concern over global warming just as that issue seemed to be taking hold and helped make Florida inhospitable toward more coal-burning power generators.
But to actually accomplish anything, Crist’s weapon of choice is the study commission, though he likes to call them other things. He has a new “Children’s Cabinet,” consisting of some of his agency heads and a few others interested in the topic. There is an “Energy Action Team,” similar in its makeup, as well as an Energy Commission. He created a commission on open government. We already had the constitutionally mandated Tax and Budget Reform Commission (hobbled now by public cynicism toward tax reform produced by the inflated “drop like a rock” rhetoric of property-tax cutting).
He has astounding success at self-marketing through low-controversy symbolism. It really is remarkable that he could show up at meeting of black legislators in August and be proclaimed by one of them, Democrat Terry Fields of Jacksonville, as Florida’s “first black governor” on the basis of his support for restoring voting rights of felons, the $5-million settlement over the beating death of juvenile inmate Martin Lee Anderson and his lawsuit against a little Perry motel over a segregated swimming pool. Compare real political courage by other governors. Trying to negotiate peace in Selma in 1965 cost ex-Gov. LeRoy Collins a U.S. Senate seat in 1968, and Gov. Reubin Askew was supporting school integration in 1972 while segregationist George Wallace was winning the Florida primary. No wonder Crist thinks empty rhetoric and symbolic gestures work.
You could argue — and many have — that Crist is avoiding controversy so he can bring people together on difficult issues. But he seems heedless of policy detail and its unintended consequences.
Look at property insurance premiums. For years insurance premiums and government subsidies have hidden the risks of building expensive condos along the beaches. When all those owners got smacked by big hurricanes, they all wanted to be bailed out of their folly without paying higher premiums. What do people expect after four hurricanes?
Crist coddled them in his campaign. He wanted to blame anybody but the people who vote, and he turned his most intense populist rhetoric on insurance companies. Crist “solved” the problem in the worst possible way for Florida: He allowed the state’s taxpayers to take on the risk of cataclysmic disaster. If Katrina-style damage hits Florida, the state’s taxpayers will be on the hook for billions of dollars, far more than the (ephemeral) premium savings.
On property taxes, another election-year crusade, Crist and Republican legislators put the blame on local politicians and just rolled over all resistance in imposing $30 billion in tax cuts on local government.