Charlie Crist, Barack Obama, and the changing politics of hugging.

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April 28 2010 6:47 PM

The Unhuggables

Charlie Crist, Barack Obama, and the changing politics of hugging.

Body language. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and  Charlie Crist embrace

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is widely expected to announce tomorrow that he will drop out of the Republican Senate primary to run as an independent. Crist's decision to go his own way raises a set of interesting political questions: Can he win? Will Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate, benefit? Will this intraparty feud in Florida affect the Republican Party nationally?

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

These questions are yet to be answered. One verdict is in, however. The political rules of hugging have changed.

Crist's downfall in the Republican Party is often clocked from the moment he hugged President Obama in February 2009. Obama, in the early stages of his attempt to reach out to the other party, praised Crist's support of his stimulus spending during a Florida visit, and the governor praised right back. The hug alone wasn't where Crist's transgressions began or ended, of course. But it became a powerful symbol that opponents within the Republican Party used against him. (His opponent launched a Web fundraising page with the picture and a caption that read "Get the picture?")

The public presidential hug has a mysterious power. Once upon a time it worked mostly for good. Civilians who get one beam like they've been drinking. At party fundraisers, it's proof that the senator or representative is thisclose to the most powerful man in the world. In town-hall meetings, it can show the president cares—whether it's Barack Obama comforting a woman who can't get health care coverage or George Bush comforting the daughter of a 9/11 victim. (The most famous presidential hug, between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, was a special case.)

But starting with Sen. Joe Lieberman, the hug became political poison. Democrats used his embrace of George W. Bush, and Bush's peck on the cheek, to help force the Connecticut senator out of the party in 2006. Democrats used John McCain's hug with George Bush to show that his claims to being a maverick were hollow. (Now McCain won't even hug himself). Hugging is so fraught with danger that even Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican whose conservative bona fides are beyond question, received critical letters when he hugged Obama before the State of the Union in January.

Hugging body language will get careful consideration this election year. Today, for example, Obama visited two states with key Senate races. In Illinois, he was on stage with Alexi Giannoulias, a longtime friend who could use a big public hug. He's in a tough race, and Obama is popular in the state he once represented. The problem is that Giannoulias is a little toxic. His family bank, where he worked for four years, was just closed by the FDIC. For now, the hugging was reserved for the rope line after the event.

In Missouri the president is not as popular. When Obama was in town last March, Democratic senatorial candidate Robin Carnahan didn't join him at a health care reform event, robbing her opponents of a picture. That didn't matter to the local Republican Party, which released a picture of the two of them from six years earlier. On Wednesday, Carnahan did attend the Obama event—but the two were never visibly in hugging range.

Like so much else in politics, hugging is a lot more complicated than it used to be. In an effort to understand this evolving and important story, and as a public service, I have compiled a short list of some types and levels of political hugging. Feel free to add your own.

The huggee who doesn't want to be hugged: John McCain and George Bush.

The huggee who regrets it later: Joe Lieberman and George Bush.

The huggers who should be but aren't comfortable: McCain and Palin.

The huggers who want to, but shouldn't: Bill Clinton and Monica.

The hug heard 'round the world: Hillary Clinton and Suha Arafat.

The huggers who should probably get a room: Tipper and Al Gore.

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