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Reinvention Time for Crist?

“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.

Almost immediately they discovered they were going to have to cut about $1 billion from their own spending. By September, Crist agency representatives were lining up in committees to whine to legislators about eviscerating this or that program. Meanwhile, Crist himself remarked he wanted to protect public education money — even as public school enrollments are falling. What kind of leadership is that? You’d think he’d have learned his lesson from all the other words he’s had to eat.

And let’s not forget tuition increases. We have just about the lowest tuition rates in the country and no university, public or private, among the top 20 universities and just one in the top 50. Even at our best university, students routinely sit in classes of more than 100 students. We basically pay our best students to go to our state schools.

But Crist’s pandering reflex kicked in, and he vetoed tuition increases. And then he backed off. It wasn’t a vision thing; he didn’t come out for a great university system. He just caved, at least for the best-connected universities.

Once staunch against expanded gambling, by August Crist was negotiating with the Seminole tribe to authorize more slot machines in exchange for a few hundred million in tax revenue.

Reason for hope

A lot of governors have had to find their footing after a weak start. The most famous turnaround was Bob Graham’s, after the St. Petersburg Times labeled him “Gov. Jell-O” for some of the same kinds of things Crist is now doing — staking out broad themes but deferring to legislators on how to implement them, backing off on apparent commitments like a gas tax. He wasn’t always right, and his eight years of pandering to conservatives with the death penalty was shameful. Still, you generally knew where Graham wanted the state to go.

Graham remains the best politician to hold the governor’s office. Casting off the Jell-O label, he replaced his chief of staff, his former campaign manager, with the tough-minded, tough-talking Charlie Reed (later the universities chancellor). When Graham left office in 1987, he had a lot to take credit for, and a lot of it had not come easily.

Crist now faces that same reinvention of his governorship.

For a long time, social conservatives have been in withdrawal from the testosterone politics of Jeb Bush. They are restless. In August, Republican activist and moneyman Sam Rashid of Hillsborough County effectively fired the first public shot at Crist in an op-ed column in the St. Petersburg Times, Crist’s hometown paper. Rashid called Crist a “political opportunist” whose only real interest was “a place on a national presidential ticket someday.” He basically said Crist is fiddling around in politics while Florida faces “an expanding economic crisis.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Marco Rubio has been positioning himself as the conservative anti-Crist, gently upstaging Crist on conservative causes.

All this is fine with the Democrats, who love it that Crist takes up traditional Democratic causes like openness and children and felons’ rights and global warming.

It is very early in the Crist administration — earlier than when Graham became Gov. Jell-O. Crist has cost himself some credibility, partly because he fell in love with his own rhetoric and didn’t see the problems that were obvious to a lot of people. Crist lacks Graham’s policy attentiveness (or the right compensating staff structure) to fall back on to turn things around. But he’s got time. And he is a clever politician, even if he’s not a wonky one.

Crist needs to teach the citizens, not pander to them. He needs a stiffer spine supported by disciplined staff work. If he continues his old patter, he’s going to become Gov. Marshmallow. And you know what happens to marshmallows when things heat up.