John Kasich Barges In

The Ohio governor is launching his campaign for the presidency on a platform of trickle-down economics and Christian compassion. Does he have a constituency in the Republican party?

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

When John Kasich launches his presidential candidacy at Ohio State University on Tuesday, it seems safe to say the Ohio governor won’t suddenly become the favorite candidate of the Republican base. Erick Erickson, the editor, has called him “a bully”; Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa, calls his candidacy “a non-starter for conservatives.” The conservative health-policy expert Avik Roy, writing in National Review, said last year, “The chances of John Kasich marrying Kate Upton are higher than the chances of John Kasich contending for the GOP nomination.”

Kasich’s transgressions against conservative orthodoxy are many. He supports the Common Core educational standards, which the right loathes; he says he would consider allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens; his state budgets have cut a lot of taxes, but raised others; and spending has increased on his watch. Conservatives’ primary complaint is that Kasich singlehandedly accepted the Obamacare-Medicaid expansion for his state, thus making him complicit in the most loathed policy of the loathed Democratic president.

But Kasich’s heresy is bigger than these specific ideological transgressions. It is tonal—he has golfed with Obama and generally declines to attack the president personally; he has justified his Medicaid decision on the basis of Christian compassion for the poor. And it is philosophical—Kasich is witheringly dismissive of the anti-government absolutists in his own party. “There's a sort of fantasy out there, or a myth, that we can just cut all the government and that'll give us our lower taxes,” he told me when I visited him in Ohio in February for a profile I was writing. “It doesn't work that way. You can't just get rid of all these programs and say, ‘People, just spontaneously do it!’”

Kasich seemed to be referring to the argument advanced by some conservatives that much government aid could be replaced by private charity. “We do need to reawaken people” to help their fellow man, he said. “But that doesn't mean government just disappears.” His definition of conservatism, he told me, is lifting people up by giving them the tools to help themselves. “People in Ohio are more hopeful [now] that they’re included. What's better than that?” he said. “I think that’s conservatism. If it isn’t, it ought to be called that.”

This sort of thing has gotten Kasich labeled a “big-government conservative.” But he shouldn’t be mistaken for a liberal. He believes in lowering taxes and eliminating regulations on business in order to spur economic growth. In his 2007 book Stand for Something, Kasich argues that, despite a recent string of scandals involving companies like Enron, more regulation was the wrong answer, because “you can’t legislate ethical behavior,” and “so-called corporate reform” was actually “stifling the progress of American business.” That was written while Kasich was on the payroll of Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street firm that imploded during the 2008 financial crisis.

Kasich’s current pitch to GOP voters rests on these twin pillars of trickle-down economics and Christian compassion. New Day for America, the nonprofit backing him, has been airing television ads that tout his work balancing the budget in the 1990s—he was the Budget Committee chairman under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich—alongside footage of regular people and the slogan, “John Kasich’s for us.” Supporters believe there is a good chance that Jeb Bush, the establishment-backed frontrunner, will stall out or falter, leaving Kasich—another popular two-term governor of a big swing state, moderate in temperament, conservative in governance—as the preferred candidate of the coastal-donor classes.

Is there a constituency in the Republican primary electorate for Kasich’s philosophy? Some are now comparing him to Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who ran to the left of the Republican field in 2012 and failed to make much of a mark. Kasich has retained the same strategist, John Weaver, who worked for Huntsman; after I quoted Weaver in my profile of Kasich, the strategist, who had not previously met Kasich, reached out to offer his services, he told me. Weaver, a former adviser to John McCain, is also persona non grata on the right for having worked for Democrats and for calling the GOP a “party of cranks.”

In profile, Huntsman and Kasich are similar: conservative pragmatists tarred by association with Obama. (Huntsman served as Obama’s first ambassador to China. Unforgettably and unaccountably, he spoke Chinese during a GOP debate in 2012.) But in temperament, they are very different. Huntsman, the heir to a vast fortune, exuded upper-class pretension as he lectured voters on what he called the “trust deficit.” Kasich, the son of a Pittsburgh mail carrier, has a feisty, irreverent, determinedly unpretentious demeanor. He can seem charmingly unpolished—or he can seem like a jerk, as when he harangued two fellow Republican governors and a wealthy donor during a meeting hosted by the Koch brothers.

Much will be made of Kasich’s personality during the coming campaign—his volatility, his rudeness, his off-the-cuff style. It’s true that he’s an instinctive and unscripted politician, but he may not be quite as much of a loose cannon as he appears; he’s capable of being disciplined when he needs to be, and his outbursts may be calculated to feed his image as authentic and down to earth. The example of Donald Trump, who supports universal healthcare while questioning the president’s birthplace and noisily insulting other Republicans, proves that there’s a segment of the GOP base that doesn’t really care what a candidate stands for as long as behaves in a reckless and impolite way.

At this point, entering the race as the 16th major candidate, Kasich’s main challenge is simply to be heard. He has gotten a warm reception in New Hampshire but still averages less than 2 percent in national polls. The first Republican debate is scheduled to be held in two weeks in Cleveland—in Kasich’s home state—but based on the current selection criteria, he would not be allowed onstage. How can he make himself heard above the din? It may not be possible. But I remember something a former Kasich aide named Mike Hartley told me: “He makes things happen,” Hartley said. “His will is tremendous, and he gets people to follow him. He’s an ass-kicker.” If sheer force of will were the primary qualification, John Kasich would already be the Republican frontrunner.