Ohio governor John Kasich has not been coy about his desire to run for president again in 2020. With high-profile speaking trips to the early-primary state of New Hampshire and a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Kasich’s continued forays have led many to think that he might run as an independent, centrist alternative. Only he knows whether he is indeed thinking of that, but there’s one thing I do know: Kasich wouldn’t have a prayer of winning.
My claim might seem too strong for many. After all, we just went through an election fought between the two most unpopular nominees in recent memory. Polls regularly show that between 50 and 60 percent of Americans want a new, third party. Assuming that Trump is renominated and the Democrats swing left, picking someone such as Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren or California senator Kamala Harris, fans of a Kasich bid argue there will be room for someone to appeal to what the Ohio governor calls “the great middle.”
This analysis falls short, however, when one looks at it closely. The 2016 exit poll shows that 81 percent of Americans liked one of the two nominees. Not surprisingly, Clinton fans deplored Trump while Trump aficionados despised Clinton. But only 18 percent of Americans did not like either candidate. That small segment, not the larger figures often cited, is Kasich’s true base. And it’s nowhere near enough to win.
Winning would require persuading some of the more centrist voters who voted for Clinton or Trump to jump ship. The policies that Kasich has so far proposed, however, are not likely to do the trick.
His economic and foreign-policy pronouncements to date are distinctly pre-Trump, orthodox Republican. Like Republicans loyal to both presidents Bush, Kasich is pro-immigration, pro-trade, pro–traditional alliances, and concerned about the ballooning deficit. That platform would thrill Republicans who left the GOP over Trump or reluctantly voted for him despite their misgivings. But that constituency is already the majority of the 18 percent cited above. And running as a grittier version of Jeb Bush isn’t going to win over the former Clinton voters Kasich desperately needs.
Grabbing those voters would require a bolder agenda that he has yet to embrace. It would require him to address issues such as climate change and education. An agenda Clinton voters would find credible would likely entail spending more money and embracing a costly cap-and-trade or carbon-tax proposal. Neither position is likely to sit well with disaffected Republicans.
Nor does Kasich look likely to appeal to blue-collar whites who might have grown tired of Trump. Polls for years have shown that these voters want tighter immigration rules and tougher talk on trade. Kasich’s Foreign Affairs essay nods in both directions, but it’s clear that his heart lies elsewhere.
Kasich is even more unelectable when it comes to the emotional, divisive social issues of our time. He has been a strong pro-life governor, signing bills banning abortion after 20 weeks and for diagnoses of Down syndrome. But he told a reporter for New York magazine that “everybody just ought to take a chill pill” on abortion. That kind of talk won’t cut it when he is asked whether he thinks his prospective Supreme Court nominees should vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
He also has tried to have it both ways on religious-liberty questions. During his 2016 campaign, Kasich said that he likely would not have signed a religious-liberty bill and that people should “chill out” over the disputes that make such laws necessary. Wishing contentious moral disputes would go away, however, doesn’t make them go away. Nor does such a desire exempt a person who wants to run for president from the need to propose solutions that would heal a badly divided nation.
No one doubts that Americans are increasingly at odds over the most contentious questions imaginable, those moral questions that cannot be easily solved by slicing the pie so that everyone has a piece. It’s tempting to think that one can do that: In the run-up to the Civil War, many well-meaning actors tried to find a solution that would satisfy North and South. But that simply wasn’t possible, since the Northern majority believed slavery was wrong and the Southern majority believed slavery was right. Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief Democratic opponent, saw his presidential ambitions dashed when his moral agnosticism on the question of slavery — Lincoln said that Douglas didn’t care whether slavery was “voted up or voted down” — cost him support in both camps. A similar approach to today’s issues would meet a similar fate.
Kasich’s attempts to avoid even discussing these questions resemble those of an even more hapless Civil War–era personality, John Bell. Bell was the presidential candidate of the short-lived Constitutional Union party, formed in early 1860 to try to head off the Southern secession many were arguing for if Lincoln won. The party platform avoided any mention of slavery or its morality, simply noting that “Platforms adopted by the partisan Conventions of the country have had the effect to mislead and deceive the people, and at the same time to widen the political divisions of the country.” Bell’s campaign telling Americans to “chill out” about slavery failed dismally: He finished last in a field of four candidates, winning only 12.6 percent of the vote.
Kasich partisans are right that many Americans are fed up with both parties, but they are wrong about what appealing to them will entail. A candidate cannot appeal to them by ignoring emotional social issues or by triangulating the thorny economic ones. An independent candidate trying to run between left and right has to embrace radical change and national renewal, offering action and reforms while simultaneously proposing a redefinition of American identity. He can’t offer “pale pastels,” to quote Ronald Reagan; he must offer bold colors.
Last year, French president Emmanuel Macron won by doing exactly what Kasich backers propose, running up the middle between left and right. But he did so by tackling, not ignoring, the thorny questions that divide French politics: economic stagnation, relations with the European Union, and immigration. He also created a new political party, République en Marche! (“Republic on the March!”), to back him in the legislature. Macron’s entire image was one of bold, vigorous action rather than that of an old, centrist statesman calming the turbulent waters. In demeanor and in platform, Kasich thus far is the polar opposite of Macron.
Macron’s youth — he was only 39 years old when he won — also worked in his favor. Very young leaders have become a trend around the world as voters, hungry for change, seem to equate youth with being untainted by the political establishment. Canada’s Justin Trudeau was only 44 when he ousted former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, but he’s a relative grandpa compared with other new young leaders such New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern (38) or Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (31). Kasich is 66, and his attempts to court Millennials by touting his love of Justin Bieber are unlikely to satisfy change-minded voters hungry for the real thing.
John Kasich is an honorable man with a long and distinguished record of public service. His fans note that our political parties are becoming discredited by their incessant and inconclusive political warfare. But he is the wrong man for the moment. He’s too Republican for disaffected Democrats and too experienced for voters who want radical change. Kasich has already lost two bids for the White House. The third won’t end differently.