COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who began this campaign struggling for a spot on the main debate stage, has become the last best hope of stopping the thuggish frenzy of Donald Trump. If Kasich holds on to win Tuesday’s winner-take-all Ohio primary, then Trump may be hard-pressed to corral a 1,237-delegate majority before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
But even with the future of the Republican Party on the line, Kasich is incapable of delivering a rousing applause line.
“When it comes to Tuesday, the country is watching what’s happening in Ohio, the world is watching what’s happening in Ohio,” Kasich declared in a low-key tone at the climax of a Saturday night town meeting in a pump factory in Mansfield.
As at an earlier one Saturday in Heath, Kasich simply refuses to pump up the volume at his town meetings.
In Mansfield, after flicking at his record as a successful two-term governor, Kasich ended with a plea that voters should “reward a campaign that has been unwaveringly positive because I wanted to set an example and be a role model for our kids and the rest of the country.”
This is not exactly Shakespeare’s Henry V delivering his St. Crispin’s Day address about “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” In fact, Kasich seems to be channeling Thumper the Rabbit from “Bambi,” whose life philosophy was “If you can’t say something nice … don’t say nothing at all.”
This fidelity to a sunny-side-up political style, which Kasich adopted during the New Hampshire primary where he finished second, has sometimes left the governor tongue-tied on the subject of Trump.
Even now, although Kasich laments the “toxic environment” at Trump rallies, he rarely mentions the bilious billionaire by name. Pressed Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week” about whether Trump is fit to be president, Kasich said with the courage of a diplomat avoiding the criticism of an autocratic ruler, “You’re not going to get me to answer a yes-or-no question.”
Okay, these evasions are hard to defend. But practical politics is about winning — and not merely bearing moral witness. And Kasich has undoubtedly toted up the carnage among candidates who took on Trump from Rick Perry to Jeb Bush and now Marco Rubio.
In this campaign, Kasich has been ignored, belittled and until recently, pressured to drop out in favor of Rubio to unify the anti-Trump vote.
Now Rubio (a political consultant’s idea of a presidential candidate) is going glub-glub in the Florida primary, while Kasich (a 1950s politician’s idea of a presidential candidate) has been leading or tied with Trump in the most recent Ohio polls.
Sure, Kasich boasts just 63 pledged delegates. But if Ohio stands firm, Kasich is looking like a survivor — the last mainstream Republican in a three-way demolition derby with Trump and ultra-conservative Ted Cruz.
Part of what Kasich is peddling is authenticity — and he benefits from the same revolt against polished and poll-tested politicians that has fueled the rise of the Trump and the dreamy Bernie Sanders. While there is a consistent but loose structure to Kasich’s stump speeches, the words can vary with each retelling.
“People have this tendency to think that I’m unscripted, that I’m undisciplined,” Kasich told me during a late January interview in New Hampshire. “I script myself … It’s not that I don’t listen to other people, but in the end I march to the drummer that I think is best.” (Kasich even mangled the different-drummer cliché.)
Even though the 63-year-old Kasich is younger than Sanders, Trump and Hillary Clinton, there is an unmistakable time-warp tone to his candidacy. Kasich, who met Richard Nixon in the White House as a teen and was first elected to Congress in 1982, studs his town meetings with references to the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968), baseball star Roberto Clemente (who died in a 1972 plane crash) and former Chrysler President Lee Iacocca (now 91.)
But there is also a substantive message to Kasich’s nostalgia. When he was chairman of the House Budget Committee in the mid-1990s, the budget was balanced. Despite a government shutdown under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Washington worked.
At the Mansfield town meeting, an angry conservative named Myra complained that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are “being wimps.”
Kasich’s passionate response provided a window into his worldview. Referring to his testy negotiations with Bill Clinton during the 1990s, Kasich asked, “How do you think we got the budget balanced? By goofing around and playing the old games?”
Without ever taking on Myra directly — and without ever criticizing the hang-them-high ferocity of the Tea Party movement — Kasich declared, “We’re not going to demonize the other people. We don’t live in a parliamentary system. We live in a system that requires some negotiation.” Then he went back to reminiscing about how Ronald Reagan worked with liberal House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Kasich and, yes, Hillary Clinton are the only remaining candidates who radiate a sense that they have thought about being president — rather than merely reveling in the campaign and the crowds.
For Kasich, who ran for president briefly in 1999, the White House is still only hazily visible on the horizon. But on the cusp of a primary that will decide his political future and perhaps prevent a Trump triumph, he might take comfort from a song from the 1970s that Stephen Sondheim wrote for “Follies.”
That song’s title: “I’m Still Here.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
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