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Charlie Crist Is Not the First Politician to Ideologically Reinvent Himself

01/13/2014 05:44 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014
  • Rich Rubino Author, 'The Political Bible of Humorous Quotations from American Politics,' 'Make Every Vote Equal What a Novel Idea,' and 'The Political Bible of Little Known Facts in American Politics'

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL 1959-1969) observed "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times." In American politics, it is not uncommon for politicians to shift their positions to align with the polls, and some undergo a dramatic ideological transformation. For example, in the 2004 presidential race, no major Democratic presidential candidate supported same-sex marriage. Only the most liberal Democratic elected officials supported it. Since 2004, there has been a transmogrification from opposition to support of same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage. Accordingly, most elected officials from the Democratic Party, including prospective 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, now herald their support oft same-sex marriage. Politicians are survivalist by nature and are willing to shift their positions to stay relevant and to advance their careers.

Charlie Crist was once the golden boy of the GOP. He was elected to the governorship of the sunshine state in 2006 as a center-right establishment Republican. Crist branded himself "a pro-life pro-gun anti-tax Republican." He also supported a state constitutional amendment disallowing gay marriage. During his first two years as governor, Crist was touted as a future Republican presidential nominee. Many GOP presidential candidates coveted his endorsement in 2008 which eventually went to U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ). In 2008, Crist was even considered by the McCain campaign as a possible vice presidential runningmate.

In 2010, Crist was the establishment candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida. However, an unexpected strong challenge from former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio forced Crist to flee the Republican Party and run as an Independent. Knowing that Rubio had solidified the Republican vote, Crist prospected for the votes of Independents and moderate Democrats. After losing the race, Crist did not seek forgiveness from the Republican High Command. Instead, he gradually moved from Independent to a full-blown Democrat. He now supports a woman's right to choose, has disavowed his past opposition to same-sex marriage, and supports a federal assault weapons ban.

Changing positions is not always the death knell in American politics. The fact that a candidate is ideologically malleable can actually work to a candidate's advantage in that it inoculates the candidate from allegations by political opponents of being a dangerous doctrinaire ideologue.

Many liberals today champion former Vice President Al Gore. After leaving the vice presidency in 2001, Gore became a vociferous citric of President George W. Bush for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Gore supports single-payer health care and came out before many of his Democratic compatriots in support of same-sex-marriage. These positions diverge from the views Gore harbored in his early political career. Gore once represented the party's conservative southern wing. Over time, Gore's ideological compass gradually moved to the left.

Gore began his political career in 1976 by winning an open U.S. House seat representing Tennessee's Fourth Congressional District. In the U.S. House, Gore was an opponent of abortion rights and supported the Hyde Amendment, which disallows federal funding for abortions. Gore voted for an amendment, which stated that, a person "shall include unborn children from the moment of conception." Gore once branded homosexuality "abnormal sexual behavior" and said it "is not an acceptable alternative that society should affirm." As was aforementioned, Gore is now a supporter of same-sex marriage.

In 1988, Gore ran for president as the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. While his Democratic counterparts diligently cultivated support from the party's activist liberal wing, Gore highlighted more centrist bone fides, including a muscular interventionist foreign policy. His candidacy focused on securing the votes of conservative Southern Democrats.

Gore also opposed a nuclear freeze, and he supported the Reagan administration's invasion of Grenada. In addition, Gore was the only candidate to support the conservative Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in his refusal to negotiate a "land for peace" deal with the Palestinians. Furthermore, Gore heralded his role growing tobacco on his family's Tennessee farm, telling a North Carolina audience: "'I've chopped it. I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.''

After his presidential run, Gore was one of just ten Senate Democrats to vote for the authorization of the use of force by the U.S. in the Persian Gulf, and took a position to the right of President George H.W. Bush, stating: "I don't think we should have left the regime of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein in place."

Similar to Al Gore's ideological reorientation, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, also altered many of his core positions. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney opposed abortion rights, championed a Federal Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage, and opposed any new gun control measures. Today, Romney is virtually unrecognizable from the candidate he was when he started his political career.

In 1994, Romney sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts by running as a moderate Republican. He ran to the left of his primary opponent John Lakian. Romney supported abortion rights as well as the Democratic crime bill later signed into law by Bill Clinton. Romney also supported mandating employers to provide health insurance for their workers. Appearing before the Log Cabin Republicans (a group of gay GOP members), Romney said he would co-sponsor the Federal Non-Discrimination Act and pledged to: "make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern."

After securing the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, Romney continued to run as a centrist, distancing himself from the National Republican Party, supporting the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, favoring campaign spending limits, and advocating the outlawing of Political Action Committees. Romney averred, "The 'R' in Republican stands for Reform."

Having donated money to Democratic congressional candidates in the past, and having voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, Romney proudly asserted "I was an Independent during the time of Reagan-Bush; I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."

After losing the Massachusetts Senatorial race to Democrat Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney continued to brandish his moderate credentials. In 2002, Romney won the Massachusetts governorship by running as a pragmatic technocrat, eschewing ideology. During the campaign, Romney asserted: "I'm someone who's moderate. My views are progressive."

While Romney was attacked for his change of positions in the Republican presidential primary in 2012, he ultimately won the nomination. Knowing that moderates would be less inclined to consider a doctrinaire ideologue as opposed to someone who reads the political tea leaves, Barack Obama won the election in part by painting Romney and his new positions as "extreme."

Charlie Crist knows that voters have short memories and that for an opponent to try to portray him as a weathervane could backfire in the General Election. This ideological transmogrification on the part of Crist is politically sagacious in that it makes it harder for Republican Governor Rick Scott to character Crist as an extremist.

As evidenced by Al Gore and Mitt Romney's political careers, ideological flexibility is far from revolutionary in American politics. Reinventing one's political positioning to adapt to changing conditions on the political battlefield is a survival tactic which can prolong one's political relevancy. Crist, Romney and Gore are political survivors.