You'd think Charlie Crist would know better.
He nearly destroyed his political career five years ago by wrapping his arms around Barack Obama. And now he's doing it again.
He's praising Obama for the federal aid in 2009 that helped Florida balance its budget and for spearheading the BP oil-spill cleanup in 2010. He says that "it's hard" to think of policy differences between him and Obama. He believes Obama has done "a tremendous job" as president.
And he'll even excuse the calamitious rollout of the Obamacare website. "You can't control everything," he said in an interview with National Journal last week. "I understand that having been the chief executive of a big state."
Things are different now for Crist. When he hugged Obama in 2009, Crist was a Republican governor about to be run over by the tea-party revolution. Now he's a Democrat, trying to win back the governor's office after a failed run for the Senate.
But things are different for Obama, too. Democrats ran toward the new president in 2009. Now some of them are running away. While Crist is embracing Obama all over again, two other leading Democratic candidates for governor in big swing states won by Obama—Mary Burke of Wisconsin and Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania—both declined to join the president when he visited as part of a post-State of the Union swing late last month. Two Democratic senators facing tough reelections, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, also skipped recent appearances by Obama in their states, although Landrieu rode on Air Force One with the president. Alaska Democrat Mark Begich really spelled out his desire for distance. "I don't need him campaigning for me," he said. "I need him to change some of his policies."
Not Crist. "I'd be delighted to" campaign with him, he said. "I'm proud of him. I'm proud he's my friend."
There are few reasons why Crist may want to stay close to Obama. Florida Democrats are eager to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott, but some remain skeptical of Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat. Crist's loyalty to Obama tells Democrats he's one of them—a stamp of approval that a lifelong Democrat wouldn't need. What's more, Crist is frequently criticized for changing his positions on issues, including abortion, guns, and gay marriage, and running away from Obama would look like just another flip-flop.
Republicans are determined to make the midterm a referendum on the president, so whether candidates appear with Obama or not, they're going to be tagged as Obama Democrats. Crist figures he might as well own it.
The other possibility is that Crist's political weather vane is out of whack.
Back in 2006, on the eve of his election as governor, he declined to appear at a North Florida rally with another unpopular president, George W. Bush. "You chickenshit!" Bush adviser Karl Rove bellowed at him, according to Crist's new memoir. At that time, Bush's national approval was at 38 percent. But Obama's numbers in Florida are only slightly better, pegged at 42 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. He's underwater with women, men, independents, Republicans, and white voters.
No wonder Florida Democrat Alex Sink, who's running for Congress in a special election, spent more time in her latest campaign ad talking about fixing Obamacare than singing its praises. "We need to keep what's right and fix what's wrong," she says in the television spot. "I'll work with Republicans and Democrats for health care that's affordable and works for us."
Even Obama recognizes he's radioactive in some places these days, telling Democratic senators in a closed-door meeting last week that he "would not be offended" if they preferred to campaign without him.
Still, Crist enthusiastically recounts his decision to appear with the president at a town hall in Fort Myers in 2009 when he was touting his economic-stimulus plan. ("He hugged me and I hugged him, and that sent Marco Rubio into orbit, " Crist recalls, referring to his rival for the U.S. Senate in 2010.) He's also happy to talk about his decision as governor to extend early voting hours to handle the long lines leading into Obama's election in 2008. ("It's never been for me Right versus Left because of my parents," he said, "It's always been right versus wrong.")
Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who helped Obama win Florida in 2008 and 2012, is among a number of Obama team members working for Crist, including pollster John Anzalone and campaign manager Jim Messina. And Schale says Crist's long embrace of the president is just fine by him.
"Frankly," said Schale, "it is refreshing to see a politician not look at a poll first to decide who their friends should be."
This article appears in the February 10, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.