The day after Chris Christie, the cuddly moderate conservative, won a landslide re-election as the Republican governor of Democratic New Jersey, I took the Internet Express out to Iowa, surveying its various newspapers, blogs and such to see how he might do in the GOP caucuses, won last time by Rick Santorum, neither cuddly nor moderate. Superstorm Sandy put Christie on the map. The winter snows of Iowa could bury him.
From a website called The Iowa Republican, I learned that part of the problem with John McCain and Mitt Romney, seriatim losers to Barack Obama, “is they were deemed too moderate by many Iowa conservatives.” The sort of candidates Iowa Republicans prefer have already been in the state. The blog cited Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Utah Sen. Mike Lee (considered to the right of Cruz, if such a thing is possible), Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s recent vice presidential candidate and its resident abacus, and the inevitable Sarah Palin, the Alaska quitter who, I think, actually now lives in Arizona. If this is the future of the GOP, then it’s in the past.
None of these candidates bears the slightest resemblance to Christie. And the more literate of them — that’s not you, Palin — must have chortled over post-election newspaper columns extolling Christie as precisely the sort of candidate the GOP ought to run in 2016. This is the dream of moderate Republicans, but not many of them vote in the Iowa caucuses or the South Carolina primary, two of the early nominating contests.
At the moment, it is Cruz, not Christie, who has seized the imagination of Iowa Republicans. Cruz has not only been to the state, but he was accompanied by his evangelist father, Rafael, a colorful preacher who opposes almost anything, including, of course, same-sex marriage. (“It was Adam and Eve, it was not Adam and Steve,” he recently said.)
Cruz the younger is not merely tea party to the nth degree, he is a Christian conservative as well — and for 22 percent of Iowa’s “likely 2016 caucusgoers,” polled by The Des Moines Register, that’s who they think stands the best chance of winning the presidency. The No. 1 choice (44 percent) was “a candidate focused on civil liberties and a small government rooted in the U.S. Constitution.” Christie can passably argue that he is that, but no one is going to call him a Christian conservative. After all, while opposing same-sex marriage in New Jersey, he ultimately acquiesced. Cruz would not to do that. He’d still be talking — and Steve would still be single.
Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old. Officially the States’ Rights Democratic Party, they were breakaway Democrats whose primary issue was racial segregation. In its cause, they ran their own presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, and almost cost Harry Truman the 1948 election. They didn’t care. Their objective was not to win — although that would have been nice — but to retain institutional, legal racism. They saw a way of life under attack and they feared its loss.
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, once pronounced herself a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To a cultural conservative, this doesn’t look like his country at all.
As with the Dixiecrats, the fight is not over a particular program — although Obamacare comes close — but about a tectonic shift of attitudes. I thank Dennis J. Goldford, professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, for leading me to a live performance on YouTube of Merle Haggard singing “Are the Good Times Really Over.” This chestnut, a lament for a lost America, has been viewed well over 2 million times. It could be the tea party’s anthem.
For all his positions and religious beliefs, Christie is too Joisey for the tea party — too brash, as well. He would be wise to steer clear of Iowa lest he lose or, worse, follow Romney and take on the deeply conservative coloration of the state’s GOP. That might make him (barely) acceptable to Republican Iowans but anathema to the rest of us.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.