John Kasich keeps it real, maybe too real
The last time I’d hung out with John Kasich, on a plane ride across Ohio three years earlier, he had offered me life advice from Gandalf the wizard. (“You’re a very fine fellow, Mr. Hobbit, but this is a wide world, and you don’t think all these things happen by accident.”) So it didn’t really surprise me when, within two minutes of sliding into our booth at the Frisch’s Big Boy diner in Columbus last Friday, he started pressing me to revisit Judaism.
“Do you go to synagogue?” Ohio’s governor asked me, while his press aide was off on an ill-advised break to get water for the boss. “Do you read the Torah? Maybe you should. Do you realize how much wisdom there is there for life?”
Feeling oddly shamed, I mumbled something about being busy.
“I just find that it kind of tells us the best way to live our lives, and we get to learn from the mistakes of others and the strengths of others,” Kasich went on. He was wearing a light blue golf shirt and had just come from a haircut. “So I don’t know why we wouldn’t be reading that. What’s more important than that book? So you don’t read it. So maybe you’ll think about it.”
Kasich, who will announce his entry into the presidential race Tuesday, offered that he himself had been “slipping away” lately, unable to find the time to read Scripture. (Born Catholic, he converted to an evangelical brand of Protestantism after a drunk driver killed his parents 28 years ago.) Then he paused, and all at once he seemed to relent, as if catching himself in an old and irritating habit.
“Hey, look, man, I’m lost, OK?” he said, gently throwing up his hands. “So that’s just the way it goes.”
“I don’t have things figured out. I’m not that great a guy. So who am I to — I’m acting like, ‘Well, listen to me, I can tell you.’ Well, you know, it’s an easy thing to say but harder to do.”
I wondered aloud if calling yourself lost, even in the nonsecular sense, was an odd way to embark on a presidential campaign.
“What I’m saying is I’m a flawed man,” Kasich told me. “When I say I’m lost, it’s because I look and I say — first of all, I’m not running yet, and second, when I say that, I mean that I don’t always know the way, in terms of the depths of my life, my heart and my conscience. I try to work on these things and study these things.”
He shook his head.
“You know. I was lost, and I guess now I’m found. But it’s not an easy road.”
Kasich seemed to be enjoying this conversation about his spiritual self-doubt, and I was too. But having talked to some of his friends and advisers, I could almost hear their collective groan. Why does the guy have to do this kind of thing?
If you were going to sit down and sketch, on paper, the ideal Republican candidate for 2016, you might come up with a résumé a lot like Kasich’s. The son of a mailman, he was elected to Congress when he was 30 and went on to become the forceful and reform-minded chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, where he helped negotiate balanced budgets in the 1990s.
Kasich, then House Budget Committee chairman, celebrates a budget agreement in 1995 with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Photo: Doug Mills/AP)
After a decade working for Lehman Brothers and hosting his own show on Fox News, Kasich got himself elected to the governorship in 2010 and reelected with 64 percent of the vote last year, having presided over an impressive economic turnaround. As governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie struggle to explain their unpopularity at home, Kasich, who closed a $6 billion budget gap even while slashing taxes and trying to eliminate the income tax altogether, boasts an approval rating of over 60 percent.
And yet, when the fantasy-baseball crowd of presidential politics shows up on cable TV, the 63-year-old Kasich is never in what they call the top tier. And that’s because the popular narrative holds that he may just be too impetuous and too self-involved to be president — in other words, that he’s the kind of guy who shows up to an interview and starts proselytizing, just because it’s on his mind.
When at last I changed the subject and raised this unflattering narrative with Kasich, he brushed it aside as the stuff of Beltway arrogance.
“A lot of people used to say that I was undisciplined, OK?” he told me. “I mean, come on. How do you balance the budget or fix Ohio or do what I did for the 10 years I was out and be undisciplined? But I’m not real good at being programmed. I don’t like to be programmed. I like to be able to be real.
“Keeping it real — who said that?” Kasich asked me. “Whoever said that, I like it.”
I’ve written before that in politics, as in life, your greatest strengths always turn out to be your greatest weaknesses. Just look at the 2016 Republican field.
Jeb Bush is a known quantity with a famous name, but his biggest vulnerability is that all that history links him too firmly to the past. Scott Walker has a black-and-white way of framing issues, but that also means he may struggle to demonstrate much depth. Marco Rubio has the advantage of being young and culturally different. The problem there is that he’s young and culturally different.
So it is with Kasich. No one’s ever said the guy isn’t extraordinarily bright and dynamic, with a working-class authenticity and probing intellect that have always made him politically unpredictable.
As one of Newt Gingrich’s chief lieutenants in the ’90s, Kasich went after corporate welfare and the B-2 bomber program. As a conservative governor eyeing the presidency, he accepted the president’s expansion of Medicaid and has been a vocal champion of set-asides for minority contractors.
Kasich has an instinctive aversion to anything that sounds like talking points or triteness. Curt Steiner, a longtime adviser to Ohio Republicans, described this quality to me as “dissonance,” by which he means that Kasich, like a jazz musician, will riff in a way that seems discordant but somehow resonates on a deeper level.
But presidential politics isn’t improv. It is thought to require a fair amount of rote repetitiveness and diplomacy (which is why Donald Trump, for all his P.T. Barnum-like panache, will likely flame out before the snow falls in Manchester).
It also requires a good deal of grace, which is something Kasich, with all that working-class authenticity and the latent resentment that sometimes comes with it, often has a hard time holding on to. One of his worst moments as governor came when a video surfaced showing a belligerent Kasich, in a lecture to government employees, referring to a state cop who once pulled him over as an “idiot.”
A few weeks ago, the website of the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran this headline over an op-ed by Brent Larkin, its former editorial page editor: “Ohio Gov. John Kasich runs the risk of being perceived as a jerk.” You’d have to think they were going for subtlety.
As we sat in Frisch’s, a diner Kasich finds so uplifting that he once felt moved to call the owner and leave him a complimentary voicemail, Kasich insisted that the rest of the country was about to meet a politician who had grown more measured with age.
“Initially I was a ball of fire in this job,” he said, recalling his early years in the Statehouse. “You just mature. There’s no question I’m different than I was. I would hope that, look, when I’m 80 I’m going to be better than I am now.”
Kasich with his daughter Reese, then 13, in 2013. (Photo: Al Behrman/AP)
Kasich said he had learned to be more like the father of his state. It was a telling analogy; Gingrich had suggested to me that having raised twin daughters (they’re now 15) had mellowed Kasich considerably over the years, as fatherhood often does.
“My wife told me that one time,” Kasich said. “She said, ‘You’re the father of Ohio. Would you act like it?’”
So would Kasich need to rein himself in during the long slog ahead?
“Look, the people of this state rewarded me unlike they’ve rewarded anybody,” he said. “We can all get better. But you know, you also don’t want to take the starch out of John Kasich either, do you? My closest friends, my wife, they will tell me where they think I can improve, and I will listen to them.
“But I’m not going to read a column in a newspaper written by somebody that I don’t know, or nobody that’s ever spent any real time with me. What do they know? They don’t know me!”
Neither did I, or not really. A few minutes later, Kasich abruptly cut me off in the middle of a question. “You know what it is about you?” he said, staring across the table.
I braced myself, expecting some kind of anti-Washington tirade.
“I think you get me,” Kasich declared. “You don’t get all of me. But you get more.”
I started to say I might. Then he leaned forward and cut me off again.
“You know, in Washington, if you’re a congressman down there, do you know how much energy it takes to move that system?” Kasich asked, his voice rising. “Do you know how amazing it is to limit the production of a major defense program? Do you know how hard it is to move the system and balance the frickin’ budget? Do you know what that takes?
“So when people say, ‘He has too much energy’ or ‘He’s too strong’ or whatever — you can’t get anything done otherwise! I was in Congress! President is a little different. Governor is a little different. You call the tune.”
The strange thing here is that whatever impressions linger of Kasich’s temperament are almost certainly lost on actual voters. Most of them won’t remember him from Congress 20 years ago, and in any event they’re going to get an up-close look at the man in the weeks ahead. They can decide for themselves.
But Kasich is getting into the race late (he’s No. 16, if anyone’s bothering to keep track anymore), and the battle for activists and money is intense. Whether the popular governor of Ohio can position himself as a serious contender among party insiders will depend, in part, on whether they believe he’s truly evolved.
Kasich’s team clearly understands the importance of dispelling the old image. Earlier this month, his PAC released what amounts to his first campaign ad, produced by Fred Davis, the renegade adman best known for creating the infamous “demon sheep” spot for Carly Fiorina’s doomed Senate run in California.
The ad opens with a cacophonous mash-up of all the other candidates’ clichéd rhetoric, followed by a female voice asking: “Hey, what about us?” Then there’s Kasich, in a sober dark suit and white shirt and graying noticeably, telling his story in a relaxed, fatherly tone.
It’s easily the best ad of the early presidential season so far — not just because it feels fresher and more authentic than anything else but because it goes right to the heart of Kasich’s challenge. Talking to the camera, he seems calm, confident, in control.
He seems undeniably presidential.
With Texas Gov. George W. Bush after Kasich endorsed Bush for president after ending his own campaign in 1999. (Photo: Reuters)
Kasich, as you may recall, ran for president once before, in the run-up to the 2000 election. Although he was 47 at the time, he describes himself then as a “kid,” and that’s probably an accurate summation of what Republican voters thought, too. The party establishment closed ranks around a governor named George W. Bush and blocked off the avenues for just about everyone else, and Kasich ran out of cash.
“I just kept running into the wall and couldn’t crack anything,” Kasich told me. “It was unusual. It was unusual for me in that no matter how hard I worked at it, I didn’t feel like I was making progress.”
I pointed out that he had never waged a losing campaign before then (and hasn’t since). He shook his head impatiently.
“No, I’m talking about life,” he said. “When I keep struggling and keep working at something, I can usually get somewhere. I have to say, and I guess I never really thought about it this way, Matt, but I think it was just the frustration of feeling like I didn’t make any progress.”
You would think the memory of this might give Kasich pause as he surveys the terrain for 2016. Here again, his party’s establishment is enamored of a guy named Bush, with all the fundraising and organizing muscle the name brings with it. To this point, Kasich barely registers in national polls and is very much in danger of being cut out of the first debate next month, while Donald Trump and Ben Carson command the stage. Worse yet, the debate happens to be in Cleveland.
When I raised the specter of this humiliation with Kasich, he tried to sound Zen. “Well, you’re not a fortune teller, are you?” he asked me. “I don’t control that. I worry about things that I can have some impact on. And things I can’t — what am I going to do? Whine?”
In fact, 2015 really isn’t much like 1999. This time, the Bush in the field is leading polls with only a small plurality, and according to an exhaustive analysis by Nicholas Confessore and Sarah Cohen in the New York Times last weekend, the “vast majority” of Republican fundraisers and contributors have thus far been sitting this one out, waiting for the field to take shape.
Kasich with members of the Ohio team at the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in Des Moines, Iowa, in June. (Photo: Michael Zamora/The Des Moines Register via AP)
Kasich may be the last major entrant into the race (Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor, is apparently still planning to get in, for some reason), but that also means he won’t feel as played out as some of the contenders who have been hanging around for months already. You could see how voters in Iowa might already be tired of Walker, who’s been up and down so much by now that the media actually billed his announcement speech as a comeback.
And Kasich has not only a strong case to make, in terms of his success in Ohio, but also a style that suits the moment. The most successful candidates of the modern era — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — have managed not only to capture the bases of their parties but also to co-opt the reform ethos that seems to resurface with every election. Even as they’re pushed into ideological camps, voters, and especially younger voters, feel less connected to the artifice and predictability of party politics and yearn for something real.
Kasich is probably better situated to exploit that impulse than any other candidate. The trick for him is to somehow walk the line of candor without crossing the boundary into provocation — to come across as the grownup alternative who defies convention and orthodoxy, rather than another quick-tongued challenger starved for attention.
Near the end of our conversation at Frisch’s, I asked Kasich about Hillary Clinton. Republicans — like just about everyone else right now — assume she’ll be the Democratic nominee, and one of the central questions for candidates this fall will be how they intend to beat her after losing two consecutive elections.
“I’ve known her a long time,” Kasich told me. “I think it’s all about a big vision. That’s what it’s all about. Who’s got the bigger vision. Who can connect best and give people the sense that they’re going to be treated fairly, that we’re going to be unified. I mean, I have my views of Hillary, which at some point I will express.”
He started in on a preview of what the Kasich vision will sound like.
“There’s a concern in this country that the American dream is being eroded, that maybe my kids won’t have it as good as I got it from my parents,” Kasich began. For a moment, I assumed he was going to sound like every other Republican candidate who prattles on about the American dream, but then came one of those Kasich riffs.
“Does the system work? Is the system fair? Is the system crooked? Is anybody looking out for me? Am I all alone? ‘Bowling Alone.’ I never read the book, but I should.
“And I think it’s a person that has the credibility to say, ‘No. Stop it. We can do it. This can work. This is a great country! We’re going to be OK! And here’s some things we’re going to do, and you’re not going to get shafted, and if we have to do some things where we have to sacrifice, no one’s going to be left out. If you know somebody, you’re not going to get special treatment. If you’re the underdog, we love you.’”
I sat there for a moment, trying to imagine the power this message could have, if he could keep from getting sidetracked or petulant. That’s the thing about dissonance: When it’s not jarring to the ear, it can grab you by the throat.