The Hug of Death: Why It Wasn't Crist's Fault

With Charlie Crist making his big announcement, it's worth taking a moment to look back at the most infamous plot point in his near-term political career: his Obama hug.

Crist appeared with President Obama at a rally in Ft. Myers on Feb. 9, 2009, to welcome the president to his home state--a state among the hardest hit by the subprime crisis, a veritable epicenter of home foreclosure--and, in doing so, to welcome the federal money Florida would get under Obama's stimulus package.

The two hugged on stage. The moment would be fateful.

The hug would become a centerpiece of the campaign against Gov. Crist, as his adversary on the right, Marco Rubio, would point to it at every moment he could. Rubio launched a fundraising website in featured a gigantic photo of Obama and Crist nearing their embrace. For a time, visitors to Rubio's main campaign website were greeted with the gigantic photo upon arrival. To this day, the photo occupies a prominent spot on the Rubio site. It's the first thing one notices when visiting.

In February of this year, FreedomWorks held a "Celebrate The Hug" rally, at which Rubio spoke.

Crist's hug has become synonymous with the Rubio campaign--even more so than the campaign's own logo. As Crist's opposition rests largely on his support for the stimulus--without which the embrace wouldn't have happened--the hug is the singular image through which all the anti-Crist energy has come to be focused and expressed.

(Marc has pointed out that the semiotics are a bit questionable. Crist has been dogged by gay rumors before; in the photo chosen by Rubio's campaign, it looks like he and Obama are about to kiss.)

But here's an important thing about the hug: it wasn't actually Crist's fault.

Yes, he was on stage with Obama. Yes, took the stimulus money. Those are fair points of politics and policy.

But let's go to the tape, and realize something: Crist didn't actually hug Obama, so much as Obama hugged him. Crist put himself in the position, but he was not the agent of this embrace. He basically just stood there.

If the president of the United States steps forward and puts his arm around your shoulder, what do you do?

Skip to the end of the video, and note how Crist stands still, as his political future is, unwittingly, changed forever, and raises his left arm to accept the hug Obama bestows upon him:

Would things have been different if the two hadn't hugged? We'll never know. All the reasons for conservatives to oppose Crist would still exist.

But so much about politics rests on advertising, messaging, and the catchiness of ideas. Symbols and slogans matter when you're tying to lodge political arguments into the public consciousness. If nothing else, the physical hug gave Rubio a powerful weapon.

And looking at it now, we see Obama giving this gift, unknowingly, to one of the few Republicans who stood by him as he passed the stimulus, his first major initiative as president.

Truly, it was the hug of death.