Republicans Heading for a Spectacular Bloodbath in Florida

November 16th, 2009 at 10:42 am David Frum | 6 Comments |

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The Republican fratricide in the November 3 special election in upstate New York may prove just an opening round of an even more spectacular bloodbath in Florida in 2010.

In New York, Republican feuding lost the party a seat in the House of Representatives. At stake in Florida is not only a senatorship — but very possibly Republican hopes for 2012 as well.

The battle in Florida pits Gov. Charlie Crist against former Speaker of the Florida House Marco Rubio. Both men claim to be conservative, pro-life, tax cutters. On the issues, they would seem to agree far more than they disagree.

But on one issue they have disagreed passionately: President Obama’s fiscal stimulus. Squeezed by his state’s desperate fiscal condition, Crist endorsed and campaigned for the Obama stimulus. Inspired by his conservative ideology, Rubio opposed stimulus.

Now Rubio is the darling of conservatives nationwide. Just this week it was announced that he would keynote next year’s annual CPAC conference in Washington. He has been profiled on the cover of National Review, endorsed by the Club for Growth, and feted by radio talk show hosts.

Crist, who as recently as 2008 topped the libertarian Cato Institute’s list of favorite governors, has been consigned to pariah status. Here’s the significance of the Florida contest: Every state except Vermont is legally required to balance its budget.

With revenues collapsing in 2008-2009, every Republican governor in the country eventually accepted federal funds. (The two most vociferous objectors — Alaska’s Sarah Palin and South Carolina’s Mark Sanford — were either physically or mentally checking out of their jobs.)

Are all these Republican leaders, including such outstanding figures as Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Haley Barbour of Mississippi, now disqualified for future races? But if every governor accepted stimulus dollars, few states were as hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis as Florida. State revenues collapsed by 11.5 percent between 2008 and 2009. Constitutionally obliged to balance the budget, Crist raised fees and cigarette taxes — and still faced a huge budget gap.

Florida is a low-spending state. (New York, with an only slightly larger population, spends nearly twice as much.) Economies are not easily found. Constitutionally obliged to balance his budget, Crist welcomed President Obama’s offer of federal stimulus dollars, and campaigned hard for passage of the emergency measure.

The final Obama plan granted Florida more than $15 billion over three years. That money averted radical cuts to schools and Medicaid. It saved the state from furloughing employees and raising taxes even higher. It has paid for emergency employment on roads and water projects. It has extended unemployment benefits for 700,000 Floridians and put an extra $25 per week in their relief packets.

Marco Rubio has fiercely denounced Crist’s support for the Obama stimulus. His campaign ads show images of Crist and Obama side by side and damn the stimulus as “trillions in reckless spending” and a “terrible threat to a fragile economy.”

Rubio’s last term in the Florida House ended in January 2009, so he did not share responsibility for the state’s fiscal crisis. But when asked by reporters what he would have done differently, Rubio has suggested that he would have refused the federal stimulus dollars and instead cut up to $6 billion out of the $65 billion state budget. When asked where precisely he would have found those savings, Rubio demurred: “I don’t have the budget in front of me.”

These answers have gained Rubio little traction among voters in Florida, where he trails Crist badly in all demographic categories. Rubio even trails Crist by 10 points among Hispanics, despite his Cuban ancestry and fluent Spanish.

But Rubio’s message of uncompromising, unremitting opposition to President Obama has won him an enthusiastic following among conservatives nationwide.

Rubio’s national base is generating national dollars. Writing on, the Web site I edit, Tim Mak reports that Crist has raised less than one-quarter of his money from outside Florida. More than one-third of Rubio’s money has come from out of state. Only 13 percent of Crist’s out-of-state dollars come from the Washington area, compared with 22 percent of Rubio’s.

The candidate who purports to speak for populist rage in fact turns out to be the candidate of a national political leadership. They used to have a saying in Tammany Hall: “It’s better to lose an election than lose control of the party” — and control of the party is precisely what is at stake in Florida 2010.

But here’s the most important unasked question raised by the enthusiasm for Rubio among Washington conservatives: What alternative policy should have been adopted back in the spring, when interest rates had been cut to almost zero and the economy was still collapsing? Are vague bromides about big government anything like an adequate response to the worst economic crisis experienced by any American under age 80?

The great free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the right policy in the 1930s was a bank rescue — but the bank bailouts (begun under a Republican president, lest we forget) are even more unpopular among conservatives than Obama’s stimulus.

A few days ago, I was talking to a roomful of young conservatives about the crisis. All agreed in denouncing both the bank bailouts done under TARP and the stimulus. I asked: OK fine, what was the alternative?

There was a short pause, and then somebody laughed: “I guess it’s lucky that we weren’t in power.”

That’s not much of a motto for a would-be national governing coalition. If all we conservatives have to offer is oppositionism, then opposition is the job we’ll be assigned to fill.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • crazylarry

    OK fine, what was the alternative?

    Take the 700 Billion, hire some of the jobless wall street folks who should have lost their jobs when they bankrupted their institutions, and put them to work making emergency loans to CIT’s customers and any other business who should have disappeared last fall. Have the fed hold the loans till the economy rebounds and then sell em.

    Rubio can pop off all he wants any governor who turns down government money during a very deep recession is a fool.

  • crazylarry

    “and put them to work making emergency loans to CIT’s customers and”

    that is supposed to be followed by

    “and other business’s who were served by the should have failed institutions”

    I get fired up when thinking about those bailouts and rushed through that one.

  • jletzer


    You and David Brooks are birds of a feather. All you have proven to conservatives is that a liberal republican is nothing more than a liberal.

  • CharlieFremont

    Seems to me Charlie Crist was on very thin ice with the conservative wing of the GOP early on as FL guv. His opportune support of John McCain on the eve of FL’s primary further eroded center right and conservative Republicans.

    He is also the most frustrating kind of Republican officer holder. The old Gerald Ford model budget and “good government” administrator. If that means populist, but short sighted insurance regulations, so be it. If that means taking from the federal till to make his job easier – well a lot of us don’t like that kind of leadership.

    Finally, Crist as senate candidate was foisted upon us by the Washington GOP elites. Didn’t the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee encourage Crist and get behind him? And while we’re at it, what’s so bad about what happened in New York’s 23rd? For a couple of years we get to have a very liberal Democrat following Ms. Pelosi and her whips’ orders while the GOP has a chance to grow it’s sinew and muscle on the grassroot level. A vigorous primary will offer the district a much better candidate than the Dede or Hoffman.

    Thanks, CF

  • CharlieFremont

    You’re right pointing out the lack of Washington DC Republican leadership and thoughtfulness regarding the stimulus and bailout debacles. I recall hearing and reading of many thoughtful actions the government might take in the face of all the crisis, real and imagined facing us. However, the GOP was fired for good cause and at the time the nation had little taste for them. Additionally, it was incredibly hard for those ideas to get through the elite media filter as the media provided ample stimulus to Crist and others in the GOP wanting to be in bed with what they perceived as Obama’s winning side.

    Amazing how quickly things change when one side overreaches.

  • msmilack

    This article inspired me to write a quick note to say how much I respect Mr. Frum’s intellectual honesty. Politically, I often do not agree with him on policy (for the record, I’m a Democrat), but I read him because I take pride in being well-informed, I want to know the opinions from both sides, and I learn from what he says: more, I consider him fearless in saying what is true. He does not pander nor does he follow “party line.”

    So, my first question is this: why is he one of so few conservative voices who speaks the truth? I wonder, could it be as simple as the fact that he is intelligent and well-read where other conservatives are not? If not, where are the other voices? If so, what does that say about conservatives who either do not speak out or who speak in easy bromides and group-think?

    My second question is this: can Mr. Frum imagine anyone taking back the Republican party by kicking out the birthers/teabaggers/extremists (as Buckley did by kicking out the Birchers)? And if not, can he imagine people of like mind starting a new party? At what point does a conservative with integrity and a sense of responsibility pronounce the Republican party no longer the Republican Party? To me, it seems that the party is not dying, it is already dead.

    As a Democrat — no, let me rephrase that — as an American, I do not want to live in a country with a one-party system; we all benefit from the give and take of honest debate and opposing views where there is a mutual respect for each other and a shared concern for the future. I miss the noble debate between two parties; yet if the current trend continues, there will be no one for Democrats to talk with.

    It is harder than ever for me to understand how thoughtful conservatives can stand what is happening in their group one minute longer. Who among its members is strong and confident enough to speak out as Frum does? And why aren’t their voices louder than the foolish few who have stolen the identity of that party and that movement? It is ironic to hear them call the Democrats totalitarian when it is they who wish to extinguish any point of view that is other than their own (see Palin, Beck et. al. as well as the recent NY election and all that it portends). I await the sound of other voices that speak out as Frum does. To use a cliche, their silence is deafening.

    Respectfully yours,
    Marcia Smilack