Politics & Policy

Kasich Is the Alternative to Trump

Kasich campaigns in Columbus, Ohio, March 6, 2016. (Ty Wright/Getty)

The next challenge in Republican primaries could come from John Kasich. The broad coalition of Republican anti-Trump forces — the intellectuals, the Bushites, other elements of the soft center and intelligent but rigid right, and all those decent bourgeois people genuinely offended by what they see as Trump’s garish, bumptious lapses, immodesty, and occasional surrender to the provocations of opponents to descend into salacity — is still looking for its candidate. Many within this group have made the tactical gesture of asserting a visceral impulse to support Ted Cruz.

But Cruz is too inflexible, and too unpopular with the politicians these anti-Trump people respect, to defeat Trump. Cruz is probably the most intelligent person running. But Cruz is too confrontational; he reaches too soon for government shutdown and sequestration. There aren’t enough true believers in this kind of flat-earth conservatism to go around, and most of his followers vote for him on points but, in their hearts, think he is a Texas slicker, strutting as a former tough prosecutor and talking down to them in his acoustically irritating nasalized voice of (too much) authority. They are, as the people usually are, right.

Donald Trump and his supporters will do themselves no favors by pretending that Trump has not had a setback in the last few days. No one could seriously imagine that an assault as ferocious as that launched by the Republican elders, from the departing (from the presidential race and the U.S. Senate) Marco Rubio to the inimitably inept previous Republican presidential candidate, W. Mitt Romney, would not take Trump’s numbers down a bit. So it has, and so, probably, did his rather inelegant response to the goading of Rubio and Cruz, a suicide mission on Rubio’s part but a calculated gambit by Cruz, who has shrewdly tried to portray Trump as a likeable “entertainer.” Saturday’s results were a subject of fervently denied but inevitable disconcertion to the Trump high command (i.e., Donald). The pre-cast ballots in Kentucky and Louisiana came in very strongly for Trump but, in Election Day voting, he beat Cruz by less than 5 per cent in both states, implying slippages in the last days; and he received a good thrashing from Cruz in Kansas and Maine. These were caucuses in small states, but they are straws in the wind and, as such, they are not good auguries for him.

It should be possible for Trump to build on his Super Tuesdaynight claim to be a “unifier,” and to rally moderates, even from elder-Bushite dovecotes, against Cruz, a man that old-guard party regulars like Bob Dole could use to frighten their great-grandchildren into eating their breakfast cereal. Cruz, on the same and subsequent evenings, invited other candidates who would be nameless, such as Rubio, to consider “prayerfully” whether they should continue to split the vote opposite the “40-year Washington deal-maker” (Trump). (Their prayers were as likely to be directed to the abatement of Cruz’s often window-rattlingly strident voice.)

As worrisome to Trump as Cruz’s winning by an impressive 16 points in Texas (a state of 27 million people) and coming from behind to win in Oklahoma, Alaska, Kansas, and Maine is the rise of Kasich. The Ohio governor came second in New Hampshire and celebrated his comparative success by inviting all Americans to “hug a stranger” when next in their local shopping mall, a hyper-friendly measure that would lead to a vertiginous increase in allegations of groping, molestation, harassment, and general disrespect.

#share#The general fade-out of Rubio, though he came an honorable second in South Carolina with the help of the governor and other worthies, has not generated more than the support of those parking their votes for Cruz in Kansas and Maine; but it has started to spill over on Kasich. Some of the latest polls show him having risen from obscurity to challenge Trump in Michigan. And in his home state of Ohio, where the winner takes all of the state’s 66 convention delegates (of 1,237 needed to nominate), he has apparently pulled up from just behind Trump to challenge for the lead. The voter profile is not too different in Illinois and Missouri, which are also voting, winner-take-all, on March 15. Michigan will vote on March 8, and award delegates proportionately. If Kasich takes a chunk of Michigan and wins Ohio and Illinois, he could pick up around 175 delegates and narrow the gap with Trump appreciably. Cruz might be the first victim, as the disgruntled who have left Christie and Bush and given up on Rubio may have perched uneasily with Cruz last Saturday, but they are birds of passage who are just starting to notice Kasich.

Kasich is long on policy, and long to a fault on cordiality.

John Kasich was a nine-term congressman (only once winning with less than 65 percent of the vote) who made a strong impression as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Budget Committee, and was rated F by the National Rifle Association for advocating a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (This last will displease Cruzers but be well received by the Republican center.) He has been an extremely effective governor in a large state the Republicans have to win to win a presidential election, and was re-elected by over 30 points (nearly a million votes) in 2014. He was explicitly exempted from Chris Christie’s harangues against the evils of being a Senate talker who has never done anything or run anything, and he meets Donald Trump’s criterion for a vice president of having ample congressional experience to help make the system run smoothly. Most important at this stage in such a bellicose slanging match of a primary campaign, Kasich appears to have sworn fealty to Ronald Reagan’s famous “eleventh commandment” to “speak no ill of a fellow Republican.” Even when pushed by commentators to jump into the affray created by Cruz and Rubio as they flayed at Trump and he counter-deluged them with acerbities, Kasich took the high road and avoided the temptation. He is long on policy, long to a fault on cordiality — a corniness that was at times disarming. As the race got nastier and the leading candidates waved broad-axes at one another, Kasich began to pick up votes and to be the repository of the hopes of the still large “none of the above” category. Trump and Cruz are rank outsiders and not everyone in the Grand Old Party has defected from it.

For someone with less money and perhaps less forensic ability than Cruz, Bush, Rubio, and Trump, and from a smaller state, Kasich has played the master strategy: He has stuck to policy, invested only in New Hampshire and Vermont (little states where he ran well), and stayed alive until the primary calendar got to his region of the Midwest, all as the circular firing squad blazed away. And now he will try to strike. Fortuitously for Kasich, Trump-fatigue and, I suspect, Cruz-fatigue, accompanied by the cumulative battering of Rubio and the departure of Bush and Carson, may leave Kasich the last man standing against Trump and Cruz, and a credible receptacle of the hopes of all the Republicans who don’t want either of them. Trump is a (refreshing) affront to the party wheel horses and to the prim and stuffy Pharisees and philosophers of conservatism. Cruz has pitched his campaign to large blocs accessible to the Republicans, caught in a phrase in candidate Obama’s dismissal of those who addressed their frustrations with “guns and religion.” They appall other elements of the GOP. Cruz famously could not attract one seconder for one of his Senate motions, so abrasive and unremitting do his colleagues find him, where the successful “go along to get along” (in the words of long-serving House speaker Sam Rayburn).

#related#Kasich has offended no one, impressed almost everyone as a can-do, plain-speaking, unopportunistic veteran of the ups and downs of the Republican party; conservative enough, not too conservative; a Protestant, but at the Episcopalian midpoint between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholics; with some physical presence but none of the over-groomed, much less pretty-boy, aspects of some rivals. On almost all counts, he comes in at the radical center, except that he is an unusually capable governor and was an unusually capable congressman.

Donald Trump certainly remains the favorite, and Kasich could stumble when the spotlight is on him, but if Trump does not move quickly to placate those who want leaders to speak in full sentences and with some precision, and with civility, John Kasich could become the fastest rising flavor since Al Pacino popularized the banana daiquiri in The Godfather Part II.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

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