Monday, July 29, 2019

Essay: John Kasich as Candidate: What Could Have Been—and What May Be

Identified initially by Jeb Bush as the “Chaos Candidate,” Donald Trump has segued all too readily into the Chaos President. The damage he has caused encompasses just about every sphere of Presidential activity, but I think he has been especially egregious in the case of the Republican Party, where his hold on members has exceeded even George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Dick Nixon—all re-elected to the Presidency—at the peak of their popularity.

Events of the past few weeks—most recently, the President’s nativist, even race-baiting, tweets and speeches about the left-leading quarter of Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad”—have led concerned members of the GOP—and even those not remotely close to it—to cast about for challengers within the party. The best candidate to pick up the mantle—though, perhaps, not the most likely—is John Kasich.

I saw Kasich late last month at the historic Amphitheater at Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York. Even for someone not a confirmed Republican such as myself, it is easy to see why Kasich for so long enjoyed a long string of electoral successes. The last challenger left standing against Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP Presidential primaries charmed a predominantly liberal audience that, under normal circumstances, would criticize, even abominate, a good part of his track record. 

Many in the audience came out of curiosity, wondering how much he would dare to deviate from his longtime baeven if he might show signs of throwing down the gauntlet to Trump. A Yahoo column by Matt Bai nominated the former Ohio governor for the task, noting the extreme need for it (a challenger who, by “primarying” the incumbent, can bleed him enough to make him lose re-election) and why he’s best suited for the job (he’s a longtime conservative, unlike the more libertarian William Weld).

Aside from Kasich, there are only two other Republicans who still hold the appeal to the party’s longtime free-trade, balanced-budget brand of conservatism: Mark Sanford and Mike Pence. But Sanford is also the one who represents the most damaged goods. Whatever portion of the party that didn’t reject him for his opposition to Trump in the House of Representatives has still not forgiven him for his “hike in the Appalachians” that was quickly exposed as a visit to this South American mistress.
Pence would very much like to succeed Trump—maybe sooner than later—but through the first term, he has been mighty careful to cover his tracks. He has to be: the President recalls how Pence carefully sounded out reactions to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016, offering something between a criticism and exculpation. The most interesting Trump appointee who will be on the bubble after 2020 will be Pence. With his usefulness as an emissary to the evangelicals at an end, how much longer can the Veep survive?

As for Kasich, several considerable obstacles loom in the way of his candidacy. His popularity among Republicans, for instance, is not what it was when he first ran for governor. 

It is a sign of the madness now overtaking the GOP that Kasich—with a record as a conservative dating back to the Nixon Administration, a deficit hawk in his nine terms in Congress, and someone who voted yes on all four impeachment counts against Bill Clinton—is now considered an outlier in his own party. Google “John Kasich” RINO and you’ll come up with more than 33,000 hits. 

Kasich can’t even be counted to win Ohio, as many residents hold it against him that he spent almost two years out of the state running for the Presidency instead of minding his gubernatorial duties. (Chris Christie, also in bad odor with New Jersey residents like me, surely can relate.)

But a challenge from within the party must come against Trump, no matter how dim its prospects may appear now. 

There is one powerful practical reason for Kasich to jump into the race, even at this late date: In Presidential politics, you never know what will happen. After George H.W. Bush expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, his approval rating leaped, scaring off potential Presidential challengers like Mario Cuomo and Sam Nunn. But when a recession hit, Bush’s ratings didn’t stay high. Bill Clinton was perfectly placed to reap the benefit of his audacity in challenging the President. 

If Kasich can’t beat Trump as a Republican, would he try as an independent?  First, the effort would involve building a viable third-party from the ground up, a step that would have to be undertaken immediately to assure his appearance on as many state ballots as possible. (Though lacking Kasich’s government experience, Ross Perot more than made up for it in his 1992 campaign with his considerable private wealth.) 

On the other hand, Kasich could siphon off from both parties: Republicans tired of Trump’s serial bullying and Democrats wary of their candidates' profligate tendencies and tilt leftward. The odds are long, to say the least.

But in addition to a powerful practical reason for a Kasich candidacy, there is another moral, admittedly quixotic, one: someone must step into the breech to deny Trump’s kidnapping of the soul of the Republican Party. The climate of fear generated by his daily tirades and tweets has turned once-proud Capitol Hill titans into pathetic shells of themselves. 

For a long time, I thought that Joseph McCarthy posed the greatest danger ever to Capitol Hill in fanning anti-Communist panic—and terror among colleagues afraid to stand up to him—through baseless charges.

But now, with all the power and attention accorded the Presidency, Trump has far surpassed him in his capacity for mischief and damage already inflicted on both Republicans and the republic they ostensibly serve. 

Recently, I came across Harold Macmillan’s description of his Conservative Party leader, Neville Chamberlain, at the start of his time as Prime Minister of the U.K.: “To question his authority was treason: to deny his inspiration, almost blasphemy.” It could stand equally well to describe Britain’s transatlantic allies three-quarters of a century later, except that Trump’s government experience is far less than the British appeaser's and his hold on party unity more mysterious.

It may be that a statesman is a defeated politician and that only an unwelcome hiatus in his political career has freed Kasich’s tongue at last and liberated him from a lockstep march with the right wing.

But, at this point, the party needs as many people like him as possible who will attempt to awaken it from its age of unreason--and to question why its head not only remains in such inexplicable thrall to Vladimir Putin, but won't even support efforts to ensure that the 2020 race won't be influenced by the former KGB operative.

In addition, Kasich is one of the few Republicans with national standing who called out the President, without equivocation, for his “Squad” rants.  Nor has he been shy in taking on the GOP at large, noting, in a Washington Post piece, that they are “in a coma” right now, with no (new) ideas on how to proceed concerning workforce training, education, or climate change. 

In some ways, I found the most fascinating, loaded utterance of Kasich at his Chautauqua appearance might have been an adverb: “currently,” to describe his membership status in the Republican Party. At that point will calculated ambition or just plain moral disgust lead him to make a break?

Many progressives in the Amphitheater that day either did not realize or were too polite to bring up aspects of the former two-term Ohio Governor’s record that would normally provoke them, including:

*loosening concealed-handgun regulations;

*signing more restrictive legislation resulting in the closure of half of Ohio’s abortion clinics; and

*attempting to restrict collective bargaining for public employees—an act repealed eight months later by a huge majority.

But, if Kasich is not everything he would like an audience to believe he is (what politician is?), he has demonstrated qualities in deeply short supply in Washington right now: an ability to adjust to reality and compromise. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, he backpedaled from the more right-wing policies he first tried to enact when he began his term and cooperated on bipartisan legislation that helped him win re-election.

Charm comes so easily to Kasich that, after his Chautauqua appearance, I was surprised he hadn’t done better with Republican voters in the last election. At one point, he invoked 75-year-old Mick Jagger, and he seemed to imitate the Rolling Stone frontman as he continually crossed the stage, even descending into the audience. 

He praised the sylvan setting of this lakeside Victorian community, cracked jokes with a timing that only a professional comedian could approach, picked out audience members to address, and briefly took stances that the audience could agree with: more government funding of Medicare, reduced drug prices, even a gesture toward what he called “responsible gun control.”
What struck me, above all, was the difference between his sense of humor and Trump's. When Kasich joked, 90% of the time it was at his own expense. He invited the audience to laugh with him, in a generous spirit that welcomed others into a circle that suggested, “Look, no matter what our differences, we’re all friends here, right?” 

Trump’s “humor,” if you want to use that term, is nothing like that. Fundamentally, it is never directed at himself, because he’s not only incapable of taking a joke but even making one at his own expense, because that would suggest that he’s something other than the biggest and the greatest. 

Neither quick like JFK’s nor genial like Reagan’s, this style is mean-spirited at its core, an insult artist’s arsenal of ridicule, degradation and humiliation. It's an overgrown middle-school crybully's string of nicknames and taunts mixed in with protests against offenses to his own tender ego, all of it shouted because he knows that, in front of carefully chosen audiences, he can get away with it all.

Toward the end of his Chautauqua appearance, Kasich was asked if he would run for President in 2020. He started out with the politician’s usual disclaimer that he had learned never to close out his options, but then allowed that, whatever happened, he would act as he always did: not move until he could see “a path forward.” A Presidential campaign, he explained, was so arduous that he could not foresee subjecting his family and followers to the process unless he had a realistic chance of success.

It is, as Kasich implied, a tall order to ask someone to enter a Presidential race with little or nothing to show for it at the end. (Several Democratic candidates seem to hope a run will enhance their prospects for a VP bid, a Cabinet post or—take your departing bow, Eric Swalwell!—a semi-permanent MSNBC commentary gig.)  

At the end of the day, it is highly likely that Kasich could, for all his pains, end up deeply in debt; place strains on his family; win few appreciable votes; or, most horribly, risk a bullet from an assassin.

He could also end up a mere footnote, crushed beneath an incumbent juggernaut, the way that liberal Pete McCloskey and conservative John Ashbrook were after running against Richard Nixon in the 1972 GOP primaries. 

But there are worse fates. While these two Nixon challengers came from completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, they each recognized, a year after they were driven from the race, that the President they had defied was a threat to the constitutional order, and they were among the first members of their power to call for his removal from office. 

In the end, Kasich might have to go into the ring against the worst gutter fighter in American politics now for the simplest of reasons: honor calls for exposing Trump’s vulnerabilities, exploiting them to the fullest extent possible, and weakening him enough so that if the former governor can’t beat him, the next person to come along will do so.

(The image accompanying this post shows Governor Kasich in January 2011.)

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