By MICHAEL SMERCONISH
The Philadelphia Inquirer
I can easily see Chris Christie as the 2016 Republican nominee. Here's how I get there:
Rick Santorum. Marco Rubio. Paul Ryan. John Thune. Maybe Sarah Palin. They're the "usual suspects" for 2016 should Mitt Romney lose to President Obama, which current polls suggest will be the case. There's lots of time on the clock, and anything can happen, but assuming that's the way the current presidential race ends, the seeds are already being sown for yet another battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
You can already hear Santorum in an Iowa cornfield, telling people, "I told you so." Just last month, he told Wisconsin voters Romney was "the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama." All he'll need to do is change the tense of many speeches he delivered in 2012 and he'll be good to go. Like this one, delivered March 2:
"Look at the races in the last 30 years. We nominated a moderate: McCain, Dole, Gerald Ford. When George Bush ran for re-election back in 1992 ... all lost."
Then Santorum will drill down on a parallel between 2012 and 1976, when Ford won the nomination over a more conservative Ronald Reagan, and suggest he is the proper heir to the Reagan throne. Santorum said as much the night he lost the Wisconsin primary:
"This was back in 1976. They said, 'Get out of the race; we need a moderate.' In 1976, Ronald Reagan didn't get out of the race. He was able to stand tall in May, win in the state of Texas, which we have every intention of doing.
"He took that race the entire way to the convention and he fell short, and in the fall, Republicans fell short because we nominated another moderate who couldn't galvanize our party and bring those votes to our side to get the kind of change we need in America."
Of course, an alternative view will be that the GOP went off the rails with religious and social litmus tests in the 2012 primary season, and its conservative candidates cannibalized moderates. The conservatives then split the right-wing vote among the likes of Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain, and allowed the most liberal of the field to survive the nomination process. And make no mistake, Romney did not win it -- he survived it. He was the tortoise in a race that had no hares.
But history could repeat itself.
Because if trends continue, the Republican Party will be even more conservative in 2016. The party has done nothing to broaden its tent, and registration figures document the resulting growth of independents.
Fast-forward to 2016. Santorum, fresh from a lucrative tour on the speakers' circuit and a stint on Fox News, will run again. (Recall that when Rupert Murdoch began tweeting in January, he was quick to offer: "Can't resist this tweet, but all Iowans think about Rick Santorum. Only candidate with genuine big vision for country.") But the conservative field will not clear for him. Instead, he'll face opposition from the likes of Ryan, Rubio, etc. They'll divide the evangelical vote and create an opening for anyone who can cobble together whatever GOP independent thinkers never got the memo and stayed in the party.
Who will benefit? Anyone with less than a doctrinaire view of the world. The trouble is that there are few Republicans with national stature who are not ideologues. Jeb Bush could be that person. So, too, Christie. Last week, he was the beneficiary of a nearly 60 percent approval rating among New Jersey voters in a Quinnipiac survey, and in 2016, he could be on the heels of an unsuccessful bid as Romney's VP candidate.
In September, New York magazine offered "five things conservative voters would hate about Chris Christie." To wit: In 2010, Christie told Politico that America needs to come up with a "clear path to citizenship"; his support for some form of gun-control laws; his embracement of true heresy among GOP voters, that "climate change is real"; his solicitation of money from the Obama administration for its Race to the Top education initiative; and his appointment to the state bench of a Muslim lawyer who once represented a terror suspect (which prompted Christie to respond to criticism by saying, "I'm tired of dealing with the crazies").
A list like that would make him the anomaly in a crowded conservative field -- which would be a strategic advantage.
You can clip and save this column and feed it to me as crow. Or I'll be a soothsayer.