Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to CNN.com
San Diego, California (CNN) -- Ever seen a herd of elephants do backflips? It's really quite a spectacle, and it's happening right now in Republican strongholds all over the country.
Conservatives who used to applaud the blunt delivery of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie when it came to battling teachers' unions and cutting the state budget are now bashing the maverick for what they consider inappropriate comments about the construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center two blocks away from ground zero.
Just a few months ago, Republicans were touting Christie -- a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey who has only been in the governor's chair since January -- as an attractive GOP presidential candidate. Now Republicans have shot down that balloon with automatic weapons -- thank you, Second Amendment -- and insist that Christie isn't, as conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin puts it, "presidential timber."
That's how it is in politics. One minute, you're the toast of the town. The next, you're just toast. Exactly what made Christie's comments about the mosque so inappropriate, as far as conservatives were concerned? Were they intolerant or incendiary?
Quite the opposite. Try enlightened and calming. In fact, if the remarks had been intolerant and incendiary, no one would have noticed, because they would have fit right into what we're hearing from the GOP mainstream.
A lot of smart and usually thoughtful folks on the right are trying to make political hay out of the so-called "mosque-at-ground-zero." In fact, given that polls suggest most Americans think it's a bad idea to build a mosque near the spot where Islamic radicals killed 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks, it seems as if every conservative who opines on the subject is trying to be more outrageous than the one before. It doesn't help that the 2012 presidential election is all but under way, and that prospective candidates are competing for air time, newsprint, and "tweets."
By contrast, here's what Christie said this week at a bill signing in Trenton about the proposed Islamic center:
"We have to bring people together," he said. "And what offends me the most about all this, is that it's being used as a political football by both parties. ... And I don't believe that it would be responsible of me to get involved and comment on this any further because it just puts me in the same political arena as all of them."
Whoa. Who let the grownup in here?
Christie agreed that there should be some "deference" to victims' relatives who feel strongly that a mosque should not be built near what many Americans consider hallowed ground. But, he added, "It would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans."
More common sense. Who is this guy, and what's he doing in politics?
"Beyond that," Christie said, "I am not going to get into it, because I would be guilty of candidly what I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now, the president is guilty of, of playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it. All people in our country suffer when those kind of things happen."
Everything Christie said was right on the money, and he should be commended for conveying the message. It's precisely because this issue is so sensitive that it should be handled with great care. That won't be easy.
We don't have enough thoughtfulness and restraint in our politics, and we have far too much cynical opportunism. Too often, politicians only tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. We need more elected officials who think for themselves instead of just following the script laid out by party bosses on the Blue Team or Red Team.
Most of all, we need people who are willing to be unpredictable and criticize members of their own party when such criticism is appropriate, instead of doing what's expected and criticizing only the opposition.
In this case, it's interesting how the same qualities that caused Christie's star to rise -- his independence and forthrightness -- also sent it crashing back to Earth.
But has it really? Christie may have sustained some damage from fellow Republicans. But I suspect that he's also earned the respect and admiration of millions of Americans who have grown weary of how this game is played and want to change the rules. People like that will find this particular response to the mosque dispute a refreshing example of how others should behave.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.