Updated 11 months ago
What none has done effectively yet is communicate why he wants to be governor.
With Jeb Bush, you always knew. He wanted to kick the education system as hard as it took to make it perform, he was willing to go to bat in a big way to create an economy that wasn't just theme parks, and he wanted to cut taxes as often and as much as he could. Sometimes he'd do something in furthering one or another of those goals that was impressive, and sometimes he'd do something foolish, but at least you knew why he wanted to be there. The Bushes all get dyspeptic when anybody starts talking about the "vision thing," but Jeb has it.
Part of the problem for the four candidates comes from the respective dynamics of the two political parties. Democrats, these days, just aren't generating any new ideas or approaches to governing. The answer to every problem still tends to sound like "every government agency is worthy and they all just need more money." There's the teachers union issue -- how to accept help from the organization without becoming a policy hostage. And then there's faith -- a lot of voters have some, and Democrats haven't figured out how to reconcile dogmatic social progressives with people of faith.
Republicans, generally, have more room for error since the tax issue alone has made the GOP somewhat of the default choice for many voters. But they still have to be careful that voters don't see "GOP" as code for "WWJD" -- especially after the primary. And they're doomed, this year at least, to campaign in Jeb's shadow: How does a Republican gubernatorial candidate really get worked up over taxes or schools or business development and make it sound like those are issues he owns rather than me-too's?
Individually, the four candidates don't seem to be saying much to delineate a clear set of priorities. I'll proceed here alphabetically by party: As a congressman, Jim Davis established himself as a thoughtful, fiscally responsible centrist who tried to work with people on the other side of the aisle. He's the kind of Democrat a lot of business people might like if he defined himself well. So far, however, he hasn't come into focus. In news reports, he seems to be trying to run against the idea that state government isn't listening to people, whatever that means. According to his website, he doesn't like vouchers, likes the class-size amendment, and in Congress took a bunch of apple-pie stands on things like oil-drilling and affordable healthcare. A lot else on the site is content-free: He's a "passionate defender and strong believer in Florida's public schools." Who isn't?
Rod Smith, the other Democrat, has a solid record as a prosecutor and principled legislator. He can work with Republicans, he's been willing to annoy environmentalists, and business can't dismiss him as a knee-jerk opponent of every commercial interest. News reports and his website leave a slightly more defined picture than with Davis -- Smith, for example, is overt about wanting to toss out the FCAT. But there's no real alternate vision for education or much else on display, and his website shows much more image-crafting than substance, positioning Smith as a kind of homespun retro-Democrat who can appeal to voters north of Orlando.
On the Republican side, the picture is similar -- two competent, experienced men who've been angling for the office for years but haven't yet made it clear exactly why they want it. Charlie Crist, a truly gifted politician, has done a completely credible job as attorney general, if only by knowing what to leave more or less alone. In his campaign for governor, Crist has suggested an initiative or two involving adoption and taxes and been forthright in saying he wouldn't have pushed the state into the Terri Schiavo case. He's said he'd keep pursuing Bush's initiatives on education. But those various stances don't amount to a clear vision, and somebody who's been on the scene as long as Crist ought to be able to do better than the "less taxes, less government, more freedom" Republican boilerplate language on his website.
Tom Gallagher, meanwhile, is knowledgeable in finance and insurance, two critical areas of expertise that will become absolutely paramount in Florida if even one decent-sized hurricane hits us this season. He has bona fides in education and even pushed for tougher school standards than Jeb on at least one occasion. Based on his website and news reports, he's become quite the doctrinaire social conservative these days, but his political history indicates a healthy ability to think outside the box in solving problems. His website features a big raft of policy statements, but there are so many that they muddy up the picture rather than clarify it -- I'm left knowing that he wants to get elected, but it's unclear exactly what his biggest priorities are.
It's very hard to get anything significant done as governor, so maybe the right question to ask the four is to name two specific issues in which they want to have a substantial impact by the end of their term and define the impact. Then, what specifically do they want government to do less of and how will they provide the services it gives up? And then, what additional specific services do they want the government to provide and how will they pay for those services?
A wise friend in Tallahassee who knows the state and its politicians well told me once she thinks people run for office either to be something or to do something. The state is on a roll right now. It needs doers. And the men seeking the governor's office need to do a better job at explaining exactly what they expect to get done.