There’s now a minor media buzz about John Kasich, the Ohio governor who is now in clear second in New Hampshire—and rising. If he manages to vault even more clearly over Bush, Christie, and Rubio there, he’ll garner lots of national attention. Having attended two of his events, I could see him thriving under a greater spotlight. He’s smart, optimistic, has a compelling personal story, was a very successful governor of a swing state, has an attractive family (wife and two teenage daughters, traveling with him this week in the campaign). A good sense of Kasich’s appeal as a retail politician can be gleaned from the first few minutes of the video here.
Most of his town halls are devoted to domestic issues: taxes, health care, job creation, tuition, the rise in opioid addiction. Kasich is pretty skilled at conveying a calm “we can do this” attitude towards such issues, and displays a nuanced understanding of them. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne remarked that the people at Kasich events aren’t angry (in contrast to you-know-who, though the people there aren’t all angry either, they are also hopeful and enthusiastic).
On foreign policy, Kasich seems understated but fairly hawkish: in two events I’ve heard him say Assad is a butcher who must be overthrown, and that he would arm the Ukrainians to resist Putin. I don’t know how fervently he believes this—he certainly isn’t making it a campaign feature. He’s domestically focused.
But in Lebanon last night, Kasich said something very interesting. Asked near the end of the event (and at the end of a very long day) whom from history he considers a good secretary of state, he answered Jim Baker. He added that he met Baker when he was first in Congress and told the secretary that when he made a threat, it looked like he would follow through.
Naturally I wondered whether Kasich was really up to date on the symbolic meaning of Jim Baker’s name in Republican foreign policy circles. Baker, who held up loans to Israel that were being used for West Bank settlement expansion, who doubted whether the Israelis were interested in a compromise peace. Baker, the demon figure of the neoconservative imagination, the figure who represented what was most wrong with the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Baker, who for the GOP’s remaining realists, was the symbol—along with Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft—of how a Republican president could be practical and tough-minded in defense of American interests without inflaming the world with futile military interventions. Baker, who was invited to speak at J Street, the Jewish activist group most interested in forging a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Baker, whose mere appearance on Jeb Bush’s foreign-policy advisory panel reportedly incited a Sheldon Adelson temper tantrum.
Or was he just a candidate at the end of a long day giving a shout out to a secretary of state he knew personally?
I tweeted about the incident, and a few of my tiny number of Twitter followers responded. Then came a retweet from John Weaver, a senior Kasich strategist. That doesn’t necessarily mean much—as the refrain goes, “retweets are not endorsements”—but it might somehow mean that the Baker remark was not entirely inadvertent. There is a lane to run in, there has to be, for a non-Sheldon Adelson-approved GOP candidate.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.