New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in Des Moines last week. Christie was there to campaign for former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who is challenging the sitting Democrat, Chet Culver, for his old job back. Branstad was one of the Hawkeye State's longest serving and most popular governors for 16 years, from 1982 to 1998.
Chris Christie says he travelled to Des Moines strictly to campaign for a fellow Republican, but polls show Branstad in a double-digit lead over Culver, so he hardly needs any help from Christie or anyone else. So, why a visit to the state with the first-in-the-nation caucus from a tough-talking, newly-elected, no nonsense governor from New Jersey?
Iowa's caucus process is a huge political show, but it really means very little. In fact, victory there frequently is a strong indication that a candidate will lose either the nomination of his party or the general election. Barack Obama was a fluke on the Democrat side in 2008, mainly because the community-organizer-in-chief's crew was so adept at making the most of the caucus format. However, that same year, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who would go on to be the GOP nominee, came in fourth behind Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
Back in 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush won the Republican nomination and the general election after coming in third behind Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson in Iowa. That same year, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' eventual nominee, also placed third — behind Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon. Remember them?
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, whom we tend to think of now as being unbeatable, actually lost in Iowa to none other than the man who would become his vice president — Bush the Elder. But the most humorous Iowa caucus defeat occurred on the Democrat side in 1976, when Jimmy Carter (who would go on to be elected that year to his one and only term) lost to "uncommitted." Perhaps President Malaise should have taken that as an omen.
And still we pundits cannot help ourselves. We don't care whether Iowa really means anything. It means something to us, and so we talk about it and write about it and speculate about every foray into the state by any pol with a pulse. This brings us back to Chris Christie, who says he is simply not running for national office.
Describing Reagan as our last truly successful president, the straight-talking New Jersey Governor told the Iowa gathering, "We lost our way a number of years ago, and we became tax and spend light. Less spending, less regulation, smaller government — we're going to be all about that again. We have to step up and stand for those principles again."
Elected just a year ago, Christie said Republicans had to deliver on their conservative promises if they gain power in this November's elections. "If we don't follow through this time," he said, "voters will send the GOP to the wilderness, and they are going to send us there for a long, long time. As a party, it is put up or shut up time."
In response to questions about his Iowa appearance, Christie insists he has no plans to run for president in 2012. "I'm the governor of New Jersey," he says. "I'm not going to run for national office. You have to want it more than anything else in the world, and I don't. You have to be ready for it, and I'm not."
A politician willing to do the job he was elected to do, and who knows he's not ready for the next step. How refreshing. Too bad Barack Obama couldn't muster such humility four years ago.