John Kasich Could’ve Been the GOP’s Salvation

Instead, he helped Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich speaks during a town hall meeting in Rockville, Maryland on April 25, 2016.
In the end, John Kasich’s momentum lasted for, at most, a couple of days. Above, Kasich speaks during a town hall meeting in Rockville, Maryland, on Monday.

Yuri Gripas/Getty Images

Ted Cruz and John Kasich have joined together in a nonaggression pact, and I suppose it’s better late than never. Had Cruz and Kasich agreed to an alliance earlier in the campaign, the race for the GOP nomination might look very different. In Missouri, to name just one example, lingering support for Marco Rubio appears to have cost Cruz a statewide victory.

It was obvious months ago that a lack of coordination among anti-Trump candidates had turned what could have been victories into narrow defeats. Much of this has been Kasich’s fault. The Ohio governor won his home state but has performed poorly almost everywhere else; he still has fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race a month and a half ago. But back in March, in the week following his victory in Ohio, Kasich acted like he was sweeping America off its feet. He headed to Utah to campaign, where he had no chance of winning. Rather than train his fire exclusively on Trump, he took just as many shots at Cruz. He campaigned hard in Wisconsin, where he had a fair number of friends and allies. Yet he was steamrolled by Cruz, thanks in large part to the fact that Gov. Scott Walker chose the firebrand Texas senator over his fellow Midwestern governor. That must have hurt.

In the end, Kasich-mentum lasted for, at most, a couple of days and barely extended beyond Ohio’s borders. So before we give Kasich any credit for sitting out the upcoming Indiana primary to clear a path for Ted Cruz, let’s not forget that his campaign is running on fumes and that it’s not as though he can afford to blanket Indiana’s airwaves with attack ads. Even if we concede that there’s no scenario in which Kasich would’ve agreed to drop out, he’s still managed this campaign poorly. Imagine if he had spent the past month and a half scarfing down various regional delicacies in New York and Pennsylvania. These states are full of rotten boroughs, where Republican primary voters are harder to spot than leprechauns. It is here that Kasich could have, and should have, made his last stand.

Kasich continues to flail wildly, with no discernible plan or strategy, other than a vague belief that a contested Republican convention would eventually turn to him and anoint him as the nominee, as Dwight Eisenhower was selected in 1952. I didn’t know Eisenhower. Eisenhower wasn’t a friend of mine. But John Kasich is no Eisenhower. Dwight Eisenhower led the fight against the Nazis. Kasich is a moderately popular governor of Ohio who had the good fortune of presiding over the fracking boom. The saddest thing about Kasich’s baffling campaign is that if he’d played his hand differently, he’d have a decent case for being the Republican nominee in 2020.

Until the rise of Trump, GOP nominating contests followed a fairly straightforward pattern, which Henry Olsen and Dante J. Scala describe in The Four Faces of the Republican Party. Before 2016, the Republican coalition had consisted of four loosely defined factions: evangelical conservatives (20 to 25 percent), secular fiscal conservatives (10 to 15 percent), moderates (30 percent), and somewhat conservatives, the last of which is the largest faction by a wide margin, representing 35 to 40 percent of the vote. Ordinarily, the Republican candidate who appeals most to somewhat conservatives—a group that’s less ideological than evangelical or secular fiscal conservatives but not quite as squishy as the moderates—has emerged as the eventual nominee. This is the role that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich all auditioned for. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, hoped to unite evangelicals and secular fiscal conservatives, and he had reason to believe that in a fractured field, their support would be more than enough to carry him through.

The trouble with this analysis is that it doesn’t account for Donald Trump. According to Olsen, Trump has given voice to a fifth faction of nationalist conservatives, who reject many aspects of conservative orthodoxy: “They are suspicious of, if not opposed to, free-trade agreements and entitlement reform; they are not strongly pro-life; and they question the sort of foreign military intervention many strong conservatives favor.” Olsen argues that what really unites this nationalist faction is not opposition to immigration, though that certainly plays a role. (Republicans who see immigration as the most important issue facing the country are a small minority, and roughly half of Trump’s voters oppose deporting unauthorized immigrants.) Rather, what unites Trump voters is a belief that government has failed to do enough “to protect vulnerable Americans from perceived threats to their way of life.” This framework jibes well with an intriguing finding from a new CBS News survey of Indiana GOP primary voters. While Cruz fares well among the third of Republicans who want the next president to fix the nation’s economy by “doing what is most conservative,” Trump wins among the two-thirds who’d prefer that he or she “do whatever it takes, whether that is the most conservative policy choice or not.”

Anti-Trump conservatives who are passionately ideological naturally recoil from do-whatever-it-takes-ism. In the future, however, one suspects that winning Republican candidates will find a way to bring together somewhat conservatives and nationalist conservatives.

John Kasich could have been that candidate. Having governed a Rust Belt state, he’s had to be attuned to the anxieties of blue-collar voters. After fighting organized labor in Ohio in his first term, he quickly pivoted to a more accommodating stance in the wake of massive statewide resistance. This chastened Kasich ideologically, and it may well have contributed to his vigorous defense of his decision to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program. One could question the wisdom of Kasich’s particular policy choices. I certainly do. Yet Kasich’s willingness to defy conservative orthodoxy—to do whatever it takes—and his conspicuous empathy for workers suffering in a stagnant economy might have added up to a compelling campaign. Had Kasich also embraced a more hard-headed immigration policy, closer to Ted Cruz’s more restrictionist stance than Jeb Bush’s more open one, he might have proved a formidable candidate.

His willingness to do whatever it takes could’ve been Kasich’s salvation as a candidate. As a campaigner, it’s been his undoing. His refusal to acknowledge reality—to clear the way for candidates who had a realistic chance—could doom the GOP this election cycle, and for years down the road. Kasich might have been the crank who rescued the Republican Party from peril. Instead, he’ll likely be remembered as the crank who delivered Donald Trump the GOP nomination.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.