The practice of “Obama-hugging” – i.e., a whole or partial physical embracing of the president – has become a political liability for Republican governors. NJ Governor Chris Christie, once widely touted as the next great Republican hope, was lambasted by the potent uncompromising wing of his party when he publicly embraced President Obama as they both sought to help victims of Hurricane Sandy in September 2012. But Greek-American Charlie Crist’s problems began long before that – back in 2009, in fact – when as Governor of Florida he, too, hugged Obama and accepted federal stimulus funds from the then-recently inaugurated president. “That simple gesture ended my career as a viable Republican politician,” Crist wrote in his new book The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat, which TNH will review more extensively in a forthcoming report. Crist, in fact, is now running for governor of Florida again, in the 2014 election, this time as a Democrat.
The Pennsylvania-born Crist, whose Greek Cypriot father, Charles Sr., shortened the family name from Cristodoulou, was elected governor of Florida in 2006 and served just one term, announcing in advance that he would not seek reelection but instead would run for U.S. Senate in 2010. In 2008, he was highly-touted as a possible running mate for Republican Presidential Nominee John McCain, because he is “likable and telegenic,” wrote conservative columnist Michael Medved, and “his Greek background and Pennsylvania birth might help him connect with ethnic and blue collar voters in key states.”
But after accepting the stimulus money from Obama in 2009 – and hugging him on top of it – Crist’s popularity plummeted, and he was upset in the 2010 Senate Primary by Tea Party darling Marco Rubio, who went on to win the general election, defeating not only the Democrat, Kendrick Meek, but also Crist himself, who stayed in the race as an Independent.
That was the first topic political comedian/commentator Bill Maher asked Crist about on Maher’s HBO Show Real Time, on February 7, when Crist was the show’s opening guest: “You’re running for governor as a Democrat , you were governor as a Republican, you ran for Senate as an Independent – you like being in office, you don’t care how you get there,” Maher said with a smile, as the audience laughed. Appreciating the humor, Crist laughed, too, and said: “I like serving.”
Maher then mentioned that although independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, they cannot seem to get elected. Crist said when you run as an independent, you’re basically on your own – there is no infrastructure to help and support your campaign. He is entirely comfortable with changing from Republican to Independent to Democrat because “I felt the same way I always had,” he wrote. “I had the same basic values. I’d never been an ideologue.”
Crist relayed the story behind the Obama hug. His staff had told him that the president would appear in Fort Myers, FL and wanted to know if Crist would go there to meet him: “Sure, sounds like a great idea,” Crist told them, to which they replied “are you sure you want to do that?” Crist told Maher. “Yeah, why, what’s the matter?” a perplexed Crist replied? “Well, he’s a Democrat,” they quipped. “No kidding,” Crist exclaimed, “but he is the president of the United States of America.”
Drawing upon his upbringing, Crist said that his parents raised him (and his three sisters) to be respectful of people in general, and “particularly if the person happens to be the president of the United States.”
One of Maher’s constant themes is that politics and ideology aside, many Americans – chiefly, Republican-Americans – simply dislike Obama because of the color of his skin. “Do you think the reaction [to the hug] would have been different if he was a white Democratic president?” asked Maher? “That’s a great question,” Crist replied, and explained how troubled he is that in this day and age some people still judge others by their race. “It breaks my heart that that can still exist today, but I’m an optimist…and if we can remember that we’re all Americans, and we’re all in this together, I think we’ll get to a better future.”
A few days earlier Crist had appeared on the Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor, the top-rated prime time political TV show in America, hosted by Bill’ O’Reilly. Like Maher – who is a social liberal and rails against organized religion but shows little sympathy for the treatment of Muslim jihadists and generally scoffs at political correctness – O’Reilly is too complex to be pigeonholed into a neatly-fitting “liberal” or “conservative” label.
He asked Crist why make the switch to Democrat when Obama’s popularity is plummeting, which, in turn is causing the nation as a whole to gravitate toward Republicans? “You may be on the wrong side of history.” Not in Florida, said Crist.
O’Reilly pressed Crist on his change on abortion: as a Republican he had called for outlawing abortion except in cases of rape or incest, but now, O’Reilly reminded him, Crist says it’s a woman’s body so it’s her choice. “I’ve always been against abortion personally,” Crist says, but “I’m a live and let live kind of guy.”
Crist spoke on President Obama’s behalf at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He had yet to become a Democrat at the time, but changed his party affiliation shortly thereafter. “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left me,” Crist said, a play on the words on one of Republicans’ most-revered presidents, Ronald Reagan: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me” (Reagan had been a Democrat much of his life, having voted for New Deal President Franklin Roosevelt four times).
Commenting on the other highly-exalted Republican, Abraham Lincoln, regarding the state of the Party today, Crist said to Maher, “[Lincoln] must be spinning in his grave.” “He is,” Maher, with deadpan humor, confirmed.