A Jackass in a Hailstorm

By Donald Trump’s logic, John Kasich should be beating him.

Gov. Kasich (right) announced his presidential candidacy on Tuesday. It was overshadowed by the good ship Trump.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Jim Young/Reuters,Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters.

We interrupt the Donald Trump cavalcade to present you with a story you will not read. It’s about Ohio Gov. John Kasich and not Donald Trump. It’s not that I don’t want you to read it. I just fear that what’s true of the polls is true of readers. Trump sells, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out. So this piece might suffer the same fate candidate John Kasich faces for the moment. It’s going to languish at the bottom of the rankings—Trumped. 

Gov. Kasich announced his presidential candidacy Tuesday. It was overshadowed by the good ship Trump. The real estate mogul gave out Sen. Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number after Graham repeatedly called Trump a “jackass.” Trump took umbrage at being called a jackass, but he didn’t have to. Lyndon Johnson suggested that being that brand of barnyard animal is good training for the presidency. “Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm,” LBJ said; ““There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” 

Trump’s rise in the polls and Kasich’s position near the bottom offers a stark demonstration of the difference between campaigns as entertainment and campaigns as a vehicle for selecting qualified presidents—which is nominally what campaigns are supposed to be but never really have been. (Donald Trump would have loved how William Henry Harrison did things in 1840 in what was arguably the start of our modern circus.)

“A total lightweight,” Trump said in reference to Graham. “Here’s a guy—in the private sector he couldn’t get a job.” Trump heralds his own private-sector greatness as proof he would make a good president. If his competitors would never last a day in the private sector, perhaps we should turn to the private sector to guide us. What if we evaluated Trump and Kasich as a hiring committee would evaluate job applicants? We would look at the skills required for the job and measure whether either one of them had those skills. If this were really the way we did things in a presidential campaign, Kasich and not Trump would be getting the attention. 

Both men have executive skills. They can make decisions. But Kasich has executive decision skills in a venue that approximates the one we’re hiring him for. Trump has made decisions in the private sector, but the public sector doesn’t approximate the private one. This is a lesson all titans of the private sector learn when they come into government. Secretary of State George Shultz put it best: “I learned in business that you had to be very careful when you told somebody that’s working for you to do something, because the chances were very high he’d do it. In government, you don’t have to worry about that.”

The promise of a Trump presidency is that he will be able to do things simply by asserting that he can—he’ll whip China, terrify ISIS into surrender, pacify Putin, and fence the border. To say it is so is to make it so. That’s the way it works for Trump in business. But presidents from Lincoln to Reagan to Clinton to Bush have testified that the greatest surprise of the office is when they learn how little power they have. This isn’t because these past presidents are weak, it’s just that the job as the founders designed it is not all powerful. 

It’s possible that Donald Trump could adapt his talents to the new environment, but he’s not making the case that he will be able to. He’s saying being a deal maker is all he needs to be. In Trump, we have a job applicant who is selling himself for a job by trying to convince us the job is different than the one we’re hiring him for. This should make the hiring committee suspicious. 

It’s also important for a president to know how to work within a vast organization. Trump has done that and so has Kasich. You must know how to convey your will to other people and put yourself in their shoes. Clearly Trump knows how to convey his will (and his id). It’s the second part that is a problem. The people a president deals with are politicians. Kasich has worked as both an executive and a legislator. He was budget chairman in Congress the last time the budget was balanced and he served on the Armed Services Committee for 18 years. Since the presidency requires familiarity with politics and politicians, he has to be given the advantage in dealing with the kinds of people he’ll be forced to deal with in Washington. 

Trump, on the other hand, has spent the last several weeks torching Republicans he’s running against. He started this cycle by shredding Reagan’s 11th commandment, “Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” He’s not showing us that he plays well with others who cross him (as politicians regularly do) or has the capacity to.

According to polls, Trump has a higher disapproval rating than approval rating among general election voters. Kasich has a 60 percent approval rating in Ohio, a key general-election battleground state. Political popularity is not exactly an attribute of being president, but being popular sure helps get the job done. In 2014, Kasich won re-election with 64 percent of the vote, running essentially unopposed, with 60 percent of the female vote and 51 percent of union households.

Trump’s most attractive quality is that he could be disruptive. But we’re hiring him for a job where we know people are risk-averse. Though people are unsatisfied with American politics, they’re not keen on massive shake-ups, roiled markets from whipsaw decisions, and lots of exciting brink-of-disaster gambles. “You’re fired!” doesn’t work in the presidential context. It makes people feel like the ship doesn’t have a crew. Just ask Jimmy Carter, who in the summer of 1979 asked for the resignation of his cabinet and senior White House staff—34 people in all. Carter thought it was a great house-cleaning act of management. Most people thought it was delusional. 

Kasich has plenty of weaknesses. As with Trump, his speeches are rambling and long. Like Trump, he has trouble with self-discipline. He may have other flaws that will come out during the campaign. But for those who like the private-sector flavor that Trump brings to the race, there’s another way the private sector might inform our election choices—by encouraging us to think about whether the fellow asking to get the job actually has any of the required skills.