29 Dec

The Primary That Disqualified the Qualified


The Primary That Disqualified the Qualified


This year, Republican voters rebelled against any candidates with real governing experience.


Midway into a long December’s day of campaigning throughout New Hampshire, the state on which he had pinned his flagging electoral hopes, the Republican presidential candidate John Kasich stood in the middle of a Greek restaurant’s banquet room and shared a few words of introduction. Then he told the small audience that he would be happy to take questions, adding, with an arid half-smile, ‘‘But if the questions are about You Know Who, I’m not interested in answering them.’’

The small group responded with uneasy laughter. A middle-aged woman raised her hand. ‘‘Well,’’ she began meekly, ‘‘this is sort of about You Know Who.’’.

In fact, the question she asked was unambiguously and exclusively about Donald Trump. How did Kasich, the Ohio governor, intend to make himself heard amid the roaring, goading din of the scene-stealing billionaire? Slouching and noticeably dyspeptic, Kasich waited for her to finish. His reply was one he’d given to reporters a half-dozen times already that day. ‘‘Look, I don’t spend any time thinking about him,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t take this seriously.’’ His focus was on making his case to the voters of New Hampshire, the state where Kasich was investing inordinate energy in hopes of staging an upset victory over Trump, who was then polling ahead of everyone else by double digits.

‘I’m free!’ Kasich exclaimed at one point, perhaps not yet fully appreciating the price of insignificance,
of being a governor in an agitator’s world.

He did say of Trump: ‘‘I don’t like people who call other people names. I don’t like the divisiveness. I don’t like the negativity.’’ After that, he declared himself done with the topic and scanned the audience for another question.

Later that day, over lunch with Kasich at an Italian restaurant in Manchester, I expressed skepticism that he could so easily dismiss the man who had dominated the Republican field for the past five months. ‘‘I don’t care what the polls say,’’ he snapped. ‘‘Look. There’s going to be a vote coming up. And then we don’t have to have this discussion anymore.’’

When I last saw Kasich, in September, he seemed quite taken with the state of the race, because some recent polls showed him in second place in New Hampshire, trailing only Trump. Back then, the assumption held by every rival campaign and nearly every political commentator was that Republican voters would weary of Trump’s outrageousness well before the New Year. Once the novelty faded, so went the theory, the G.O.P. electorate would turn its attention — as it almost always had in the past — to the candidates with strong records of political achievement. Most of these, like Kasich, were governors. Kasich’s line, then as now, was that in the end, the public would opt for ‘‘someone who can land the plane.’’ That a mad bomber might be the preferred alternative seemed a ludicrous notion.

Today a Trump victory seems less far-fetched. It is Kasich, currently polling sixth in New Hampshire (and 21 points behind Trump), who faces long odds of winning there on Feb. 9. Other sitting or former governors have fared little better. The Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and the Wisconsin governor Scott Walker have dropped out of the race entirely, as has the former Texas governor Rick Perry. The sole exception at the moment seems to be the New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is campaigning less as a state executive and more as the pugilistic former federal prosecutor he once was — with the result that he has climbed to fourth in New Hampshire (though still ranks near the bottom of the pack in national polls). Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, is polling just ahead of Kasich in fifth place. For Republican primary voters, at least, pilots are mostly out, bombers are in.

Kasich is the purest example of this inversion: What had in previous elections been a badge of honor — not just his executive experience as a governor but his experience in government period — now marks him as a confederate of a corrupt political system that, in the Trumpian view of things, has crippled America. Conversely, the candidates who are currently showing life — Christie as well as two first-term United States senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — have implicitly renounced the low trade of governing, focusing less on what they have done than on what they have prevented from being done.

In this way, ‘‘good governance’’ has become not just an oxymoron but a politically poisonous phrase from a dead language. To utter it is to mark your political extinction — or so the thinking goes in the winning camps these days. Kasich is, in a way, the last holdout, espousing old-fashioned sentiments about America’s yearning to ‘‘hang together’’ and his desire to lead with ‘‘a big heart’’ rather than with a fusillade of invective. His approach may ultimately be proved right, but only if virtually every poll is wrong.

When campaign strategists describe their clients’ ‘‘path to victory,’’ they employ data-­spangled language intended to convey inevitable geometric logic, often unaware that the journey they’re describing is almost Tolkienesque in the leaps of the imagination required to think it possible. According to the parlance of the day, the Republican candidates occupy one of two ‘‘lanes.’’ Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina are competing in the ‘‘outsider lane.’’ Their raison d’être is a scornfulness toward Washington. Each boasts a proud record of nonachievement in the field of governance; their résumés are instead litanies of private-­sector accolades or colorfully expressed grievances against the Beltway political class. The members of that Beltway political class, meanwhile, hold that the dominant outsider will ultimately be pitted against the leading occupant of the ‘‘establishment lane,’’ who would eventually prevail once voters faced up to the desirability of a candidate who can, returning to Kasich’s preferred metaphor, ‘‘land the plane’’ — though of late pundits have taken note of Cruz’s surge in Iowa and allowed for the possibility of a third lane (base purist? anti-establishment ideologue?) that he alone occupies.

For the first half of 2015, Jeb Bush was thought to have owned the establishment lane. After a few notable stumbles on his part, mainstream party leaders anxiously began pondering alternatives. Christie seemed fatally tainted by the scandal involving political appointees of his who ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. Perry was equally hamstrung by his embarrassing performance on a debate stage in the previous campaign, during which his memory went dark while trying to recall which three federal agencies he planned to eliminate. Jindal could not overcome a yawning charisma deficit. Walker, meanwhile, had achieved distinction as a conservative gladiator in a blue state, but his ignorance of foreign affairs became increasingly difficult to overlook. At least those seemed to be the problems. Why else would they be struggling?

It was in this jittery climate that Kasich entered the race in July. A few assumptions, all perfectly reasonable at the time, underlay his path to victory. Kasich wasn’t the progeny of a political dynasty like Bush but instead the son of a letter carrier from McKees Rocks, Pa. His reputation, as a nine-term Ohio congressman, had been that of a scrappy and at times obnoxious fiscal conservative. Kasich was deeply religious, unfailingly anti-abortion and unburdened by personal scandal. An independent thinker, Kasich was sometimes at odds with members of his own party, particularly in 2013, when he committed the apostasy of accepting the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. Nonetheless, he did not fit the bill of a ‘‘Republican who hates Republicans’’ in the manner of the former Utah governor and 2012 presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. He was notably popular across the political spectrum in Ohio, a state that has historically proved crucial to any G.O.P. presidential victory. These qualities, combined with his working-class pedigree and deficit-hawk credentials, would propel Kasich to victory in New Hampshire, a state with a longstanding affection for unvarnished Everymen. In this manner he would wrest the establishment lane from the dynastic Bush and the inexperienced Rubio. So went the theory of Kasich’s case.

But that case rested on an arguably false premise. Perhaps there was no establishment lane. The Kasich campaign’s obsession with beating Bush presupposed that Republican voters had the slightest interest in candidates who preached from the gospel of governance. Every poll reflected that the opposite was true. People were responding to the outsiders — and correspondingly turning away from those candidates, like Kasich and Bush, who ran on the idea that they ‘‘can fix it,’’ in the words of Bush’s widely mocked campaign slogan. Senators Rubio and Cruz recognized this; their stump speeches reflected more of what they had fought against — Obamacare, gun control, climate-­change accords — than what they had actually accomplished with their Senate colleagues. In this manner, they experienced gains in the polls as had the genuine outsiders in the race: Trump, Carson and Fiorina.

That Republican voters would suddenly tune out champions of old-fashioned governance like Kasich and Bush should not have been such a startling development. That trend began to emerge with the advent of the Tea Party in 2009. By the time Bush announced the formation of his exploratory committee at the end of 2014, a number of Republican assumptions were already upended. One was that conservatives would digest the lessons of the 2012 presidential election, tune out the Tea Party’s more extremist demands (like repealing Obamacare and deporting all illegal immigrants), heed the electoral realities and lurch gamely toward the center. Another was that the party’s well-being was best served by offering the nomination to an old hand at Washington-style governance who had waited his turn — like Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and, perhaps, another Bush in 2016.

By 2013, yet another widely accepted truth — that even conservative voters expected their elected representatives to govern like adults and would therefore punish legislative tantrums — was also stood on its head. That was the year a rump faction of House Republicans, urged on by Senator Cruz, forced a government shutdown in an effort to defund Obamacare. Establishment Republicans warned that this move stood no chance of success and would plunge the party’s already-dismal approval ratings to record depths. They were right on the first point but wrong on the second. A year after the shutdown in 2014, the Republicans picked up additional seats in the House and regained the Senate majority..

Whether anyone noticed it at the time, the electoral outcome of the 2013 shutdown would have direct implications for the 2016 Republican presidential field. As Republican anger over Obama’s perceived inability to lead both at home and abroad gave rise to the summer, fall and winter of Trump, it became harder for the candidates in the establishment lane to extol the virtues of sensible governance. Any sentence that began with phrases like ‘‘I worked with the legislature to pass’’ or ‘‘We need to come together’’ was interpreted by voters as ‘‘I’m part of everything you distrust.’’ This dawning reality would fall hardest on the governors in the race. Even the jut-jawed conservative records of Perry and Walker bore the aroma of executive discernment and, here and there, compromise. Besides, as Trump’s ideological waywardness would attest, Republican voters did not seem to be fixated on whose portfolio was the most conservative. They wanted to know who was spoiling for a fight.

Only Kasich continued to maintain that what Americans really wanted was not a pugilist but rather the calming figure that he strove to be as the self-described ‘‘father of Ohio.’’ Kasich’s determination to remain the candidate of sensible, solutions-based governance would set up an arresting contrast between the way our politics once were and how they now are. Throughout the fall, while Trump was hawking copies of his latest book, ‘‘Crippled America,’’ and telling audiences that their country had lost its greatness, Kasich was urging people to ‘‘thank God that we live in America.’’ The line seldom got applause, and by December, Kasich had discarded it. But his crusty optimism seemed, like his striped golf shirts and affinity for cheesy rock bands, to belong to another era. Voters felt cheated by government and angry toward those, like Kasich, who openly defended it.

Nowhere has this seemed more apparent than in the debates, which, thus far, have been the best forum through which candidates have been able to improve their overall public standing. Trump, Fiorina, Cruz, Rubio and Christie have all achieved noticeable upsurges in the polls through their debate performances. Kasich, who remains one of the least-known Republican contestants outside of the state he governs, repeatedly failed to make the most of the time allotted him. In rehearsals before the early rounds, Kasich’s strategists prepped him to remain above the fray, accentuate his accomplishments and leave the trash-talking to others. A result was that he seemed to vaporize onstage. Kasich overcompensated in the fourth debate with a blustery, interrupting performance that was universally panned. When he directly confronted Trump for his pledge to round up and deport the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants — calling it ‘‘a silly argument,’’ not to mention a meanspirited policy in which ‘‘children would be terrified’’ — the front-runner’s reaction provided a stark illustration of which candidate had a more intuitive grasp of the Republican electorate’s impatience with plodding, humane governance. Citing President Eisenhower, who deported roughly a million undocumented Mexican immigrants, Trump said America’s niceness should not stand in the way of America’s greatness. ‘‘We have no choice,’’ he said. As for Kasich, he simply dismissed him: ‘‘I built an unbelievable company worth billions and billions of dollars. I don’t have to hear from this man, believe me.’’

When I spent several days with Kasich in September, he was drawing sizable crowds in New Hampshire and clearly relishing his position as a largely unknown but emerging candidate who seemed well positioned for a breakthrough moment. For a man who has spent nearly all of his adult life in politics, Kasich comes off as scruffily human-scale and seemingly incapable of self-­censorship. But he is in fact a disciplined veteran campaigner (he briefly ran for the presidency in the 2000 cycle) with a broad grasp of domestic and foreign issues and three decades’ worth of political contacts, attested to by the numerous endorsements he has garnered from former senators like Trent Lott and John E. Sununu.

Those attributes, Kasich’s team maintained, were supposed to keep him in position once Trump’s summer faded. At the time, as Labor Day signaled the unofficial beginning of the electorate’s attention span, the ignominious grind of the campaign had yet to become oppressive. At that early stage, life as an underdog could be interpreted as an enviable one. ‘‘I’m free!’’ he exclaimed to me at one point back then, perhaps not yet fully appreciating the price of insignificance, of being a governor in an agitator’s world, awakening in this foreign land with a wallet full of currency having absolutely no value.

Returning to New Hampshire in December, I expected to see Kasich in a state of indignant consternation if not outright despondency. It seemed very likely that his town-hall audiences would be badly diminished, given that he had been widely written off as a top-tier candidate, and particularly given that You Know Who was also in town that day. But all the chairs were occupied for each of Kasich’s three public events (though the venues were much smaller than Trump’s amphitheater settings), and neither his message nor his relaxed disposition had changed. He spoke of treating Democrats ‘‘with kindness and respect, and you let them have their say on things.’’ He described leadership as ‘‘the willingness to walk a lonely road.’’ Most of all, he urged the audiences to consider his record as governor, because ‘‘anything I do can be scaled up, because Ohio is the seventh-largest state in America.’’ The subject of Donald Trump almost never came up — at least until after the events were over and he submitted himself to the reporters, whose first questions were invariably about the seemingly indomitable front-runner.

Kasich still clung to his theory of the case. He had no interest in pretending to be anything other than the governor that he was, that in less than two months, Republican voters would turn to someone who could land the plane. But there was no recent evidence to suggest that this was true — or that voters would select the man currently polling sixth in New Hampshire as their steady-handed pilot, rather than more cunning aviators like Cruz and Rubio (now battling for second place behind Trump) or Christie (fourth).

It seemed likelier that John Kasich would soon return home to what he referred to as ‘‘the second-best job in America.’’ In Ohio, the sitting governor remained extremely popular — though, according to the most recent poll, even there, he was still nowhere near as popular among Republican voters as You Know Who.

Robert Draper is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most recent article was about the G.O.P.’s struggle to craft a new foreign policy.

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