The John Kasich “Hey, Remember John Kasich?” plan is in full effect. Ohio’s Republican governor accomplished something of a minor coup in the late summer, announcing a late run for president and quickly climbing high enough in the polls – 3 percent, thereabout – to bump Rick Perry from the primetime Fox News debate. By sneaking onto the main stage at the last minute, he consigned Perry’s campaign to the trash heap and gave himself a sheen of respectability and promise as a candidate. Almost overnight he became a sleeper favorite of the Republican establishment, and his numbers in New Hampshire spiked. Then things kind of stalled.
His national numbers haven’t really budged since he peaked in late August, and his New Hampshire support has slowly deflated over the same time period. Kasich will be on the debate stage tonight, but there’s no guarantee he’ll qualify for the next debate in early November – participants must be polling higher than 2.5 percent to make the main stage, which puts Kasich (and Chris Christie) at serious risk of being demoted to the kids table.
In an attempt to stave off the fate he inflicted on poor Rick Perry, Kasich made a bold statement of the obvious: much of the 2016 Republican presidential field is made up of insufferable lunatics:
Kasich is pretty clearly doing this for the attention from reporters and pundits, who are already lightly enamored of his “rough” and “unfiltered” style of politicking. And much of what Kasich says here is spot-on. Ben Carson’s positions on Medicare and Medicaid are extreme and unworkable, Donald Trump’s plan to deport every undocumented immigrant (along with their U.S.-citizen children) is draconian and illegal. Kasich's criticism of Republican healthcare policies as insufficiently generous is also on-point, though he has a bit of troubled history there himself. All in all, it’s a succinct and harsh critique of the current malaise afflicting Republican and conservative politics, which explains why the Democratic National Committee quoted it verbatim for use in fundraising materials.
Here we see Kasich trying to fill a niche that has thus far gone unoccupied in this election cycle: the pragmatic, rational Republican. There’s a good reason no one has claimed this role yet: that candidate will lose. Jon Huntsman tried running in 2012 as a pragmatic Republican who wasn’t afraid to flout some of the party’s dogmatic policy positions. He got blown out in Iowa, finished a distant third in New Hampshire, and dropped out before the South Carolina primary. Kasich’s complaint is about the state of the candidates, but what he’s really attacking is the state of the party – Trump and Carson together enjoy majority support from the Republican electorate. The candidates Kasich probably considers acceptable (himself, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Christie, Lindsey Graham, etc.) struggle to pull down a combined 25 percent of the GOP vote. You can fault Trump and Carson for their crazy policies, but the larger problem is that those policies are very popular.
“What has happened to our party?” Kasich asks with exasperation. “What has happened to the conservative movement?” These questions were recently explored by the Texas Observer’s Christopher Hooks, who found in Ted Cruz a candidate that is basically the opposite of John Kasich – a Republican who thrives in the feral state of the modern GOP while pretending that the good old days of Ronald Reagan will soon be once again upon us. But those days and those types of candidates won’t return, he writes, because the political environment has been thoroughly degraded:
In two generations, the Republican Party’s debates have gone from a real-time economics textbook to Married with Children. Something’s gone seriously wrong. This isn’t a primary process designed to pick a formidable candidate: It’s the selection of the loudest carnival barker, for the benefit of cable news outlets. The people who helped run the Republican campaigns of the 1980s are just as mystified as the rest of us.
Kasich clearly counts himself among the mystified as well. And his loud declarations of the GOP’s debasement, while undeniably true, probably aren’t going to help him win over the Republican base.