At the entrance to a John Kasich event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia Monday morning, I was asked by a radio reporter why I was attending. I didn’t say “journalist” (my usual answer) but replied instead, “I’m not satisfied with a three candidate race of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.” I’m aware that Kasich barely participated in Iowa and South Carolina, but in the one state he, Cruz and Rubio all spent a lot of time in, he bested them both. Plus, as he tells audiences, he beat Donald Trump in Dixville Notch.
To demonstrate that it’s not a three (or two) candidate race, Kasich has to somehow hang on till the campaign moves to Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio in March. Then there is a clear rationale for him if Donald Trump falters: polls say he is the most electable Republican in the race, with the most appeal to centrist voters. Once the terrain shifts in April to major central and northern states, both east and west, he is a more natural fit than Cruz or Rubio. By that time, Trump will either have shown himself to be more broadly presidential (filling out his policy positions with greater detail, hiring respected policy advisors) or will be exhibiting clear signs of losing interest in the entire enterprise.
But to move north, Kasich has to at least make an impression in places like northern Virginia, still an electorally purple area, filled with high tech, a diverse array (in both social class and ethnically) of new immigrants, and a seldom acknowledged dependence on the federal government based across the river in Washington.
We are no longer in New Hampshire. At 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, the student center was filled with about 800 people, few of them students. Kasich was running late due to airport problems. Tom Davis, a former congressman who represented this district for 10 years and now the rector of George Mason, introduced him. Most of Kasich’s more established endorsers are people who knew him in Congress, when he rose to chair the budget committee during the 1990s, and they seem genuinely enthusiastic, though with politicians it is always difficult to tell. (A week ago, Nikki Haley was reportedly saying privately she didn’t think Rubio was qualified to be president). The audience was led in the pledge of allegiance by a Muslim cleric—clearly a bit of a risky move, a way of saying “We are not those nativists.” Kasich’s immigration position is more or less centrist: rhetorically pro-immigrant, insistent that just as if you have a house, you have to be able to choose who to let in. Putting aside the symbolism, he is more distant from Clinton and Sanders than from Trump on the issue.
John Kasich is still trying to introduce himself to voters. He is the son of a small-town Pennsylvania mailman, the grandson of coal miners, of Slavic background. He talks about his budget record in Congress a lot (there was a “Kasich budget” at one point), he talks about the waste in Pentagon procurement, he is friendly towards Gingrich. He moves quickly past his uneventful but lucrative eight years out of office (on Fox, a job with the Lehman brothers) to Ohio. Getting elected in 2010, he may have hit the timing right, but his governorship coincided with a robust economic revival in the state—he got the budget in the black, and is now a very popular governor.
He moves on to audience questions. There was a moment when he described his first race for the Ohio state senate and mentioned that many of his early supporters were women who came “out of the kitchen.” Aha! Within the hour, this remark was being parsed on MSNBC—a sexist gaffe! Reviewing the tape, it was revealed Kasich had said that things were different in the early ’80s, that there were far more women at home, and now things had changed. But the minor storm was a reminder: there are people in the press determined to see Kasich tripped up, for whatever reason.
At town halls here as in New Hampshire, the questions are different than what journalists will ask. He handled an immigration question by the answer above (the owner of a house has to be able to lock its doors, to choose whom to let enter) but the tricky ones come unscripted. A woman in early middle age asked about the future for her autistic son, now living in her basement and approaching the end of schooling. I thought Kasich hit the answer out of the park, mentioning that the disabled have no real advocates for them, that many should be able to participate in the workforce, that they deserve the chance to acquire as much autonomy as possible. And that doing this might require a considerable rethinking about what the role of government should be. The whole question is a reminder that the world is quite different: how many people with mild or moderate disabilities might, in years past, have done chores on the family farm, with no one sensing that this was a grave crisis. But now clearly it is, for a great many people. He received sustained applause for his answer.
I have yet to hear a pure foreign-policy question come up in any town hall, but this is where the next president has the most autonomy, and where the differences between the remaining Republicans are most pronounced. It seem truly bizarre that there should be pressure to winnow the field without more serious attention to these issues. There is now considerable pressure being exacted on Kasich to give way so the party can coalesce around Marco Rubio. Rubio is clearly the hawk in the race: he seeks to roll back the normalization towards Cuba, cancel the nuclear deal with Iran on Day One (a position he shares with Cruz), deploy more troops to Syria and Iraq, monitor and perhaps attack ships and aircraft bound for North Korea, toughen measures against China to encourage human rights, send more weapons to Ukraine, increase sanctions on Russia, and ensure the departure of Bashar al-Assad. This is, as has been noted, the return of George W. Bush’s first-term policies, before Bush replaced Rumsfeld and demoted Cheney in stature.
Hypothetically (though I very much doubt it), such policies might be exactly what the Republican party and the country want and need. But doesn’t it seem peculiar that Conservatism Inc. is pushing these policies without the pretense of national debate? That would seem to be the major motivation behind the efforts to shove Kasich and Cruz out of the race and anoint Marco Rubio as the party-insider choice. It’s almost as if the conservative establishment feared that if foreign policy were actually debated in the campaign, their favored candidate wouldn’t fare so well.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.