Donna Brazile weighs in on Charlie Crist vs. Kendrick Meek vs. Marco Rubio: Harry Truman once said, “If you give the people a choice between a watered-down Republican and a Republican, they will choose the real thing every time.” Welcome to the 2010 midterm elections!
Truman’s truism is a little ironic considering “watered-down Republican” Dwight David Eisenhower stomped, thrashed, thumped, and squashed the granddaddy of all “real” Republicans, Ohio’s Sen. Robert A. Taft, to win the 1952 Republican nomination. Not much has changed, however, in the last 50-plus years. The battle between Republicans and those viewed as “Republican lite” is as pitched as ever.
One year ago the Republican Party was in ruins — rife with internal housecleaning and worried about its future. With no clear leader on the horizon, the GOP began to look outside the beltway for signs of electoral viability. One leader stood out — a man once considered as a potential running mate of John McCain — Florida’s Gov. Charlie Crist.
A lot has changed in a year. Crist has abandoned the party he once celebrated, and the feeling is mutual. With his decision to leave the GOP and run for the U.S. Senate as an Independent, the Republican Party’s perennial battle between the purists and moderates has reached the meltdown stage. Can the GOP survive this internal feud?
This division was front and center in the Florida Republican primary until Crist decided to abandon the party’s label and run as an Independent. Some political observers believe that Crist left the party last month when the polls showed that a new kid on the block was going to kick his behind by 22 percentage points, otherwise known as “a landslide.” Upcoming “rock star” Marco Rubio was eclipsing the former “superstar.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Republican establishment has embraced Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House and a protege of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Many of the potential 2012 GOP presidential contenders, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have endorsed Rubio, and his candidacy has energized the Tea Party movement.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek is knocking on doors, reminding voters that it’s time to fill the leadership void and telling them he’s the man to do it. Inadvertently, the GOP’s civil war now being waged in Florida (and other places across the country) has improved Meek’s chances of winning.
But even if it hurts them, this business of “real” Republicans vs. “watered-down” Republicans is not going away. Conservative Republican leaders are so beside themselves with anger at Crist going “off message,” that they’re in danger of injuring themselves by allowing the party to core itself out, leaving only the most extreme conservatives willing to call themselves Republicans.
Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach noted that Florida Republicans are saying they always knew Crist to be “a phony.” He asked, “What does that say about the Republican Party, that they embraced a guy they thought was a real phony for so long?
“This is a party that is struggling with its identity,” Gelber added. With that, I cannot disagree.
The GOP has some tough decisions to make. It can’t continue to be both the party of Lincoln and the party of the Tea Partiers. Republicans cannot continue to disown politicians simply because they showed some autonomy.
The GOP’s identity crisis isn’t contained to Florida; it’s spreading across the country like an uncontained oil spill. Just watch what happens in the GOP’s senatorial primary in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell and other Washington-based Republicans have endorsed Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
Dr. Rand Paul, son of GOP firebrand Rep. Ron Paul, is challenging Grayson, and Grayson is losing (only slightly). This race is drawing more attention than the Kentucky Derby.
There is a titanic struggle under way for the soul of the Republican Party, and depending on the winner, the outcome may be as disastrous and final as it was for the RMS Titanic itself.
For now, Marco Rubio, a young (39), attractive, compelling stump speaker, will be the face of the GOP in Florida. But his biggest challenge is to avoid the scripted, cookie-cutter campaign written by powerful Washington insiders.
Crist displayed political moxie in bucking these powerful Washington insiders, and now he has to pay for it because the same men have turned Rubio into an electable hand puppet.
But if Rubio doesn’t make a stand for himself, Floridians will recognize him for the marionette he is and put their faith elsewhere.
Republicans now face a delicate balancing act — trying to unify various factions by appealing to Independents and extremists. It’s like bluffing in poker: You have to remain acutely aware that you’re not really holding a full house.