A Different Kind of Con

Sadly, it has come to this. There’s no nice way to put it. A candidate for president is utterly out of control. He is running a non-traditional campaign divorced from reality. He suffers delusions of grandeur. He makes congressional Republicans’ skin crawl. He charges on, pretending he is universally loved, despite holding only a small fraction of support among grassroots conservatives and mainstream Republican leaders. He’s sanctimonious, self-centered, and dishonest about his exploits. Although he makes overtures to the center, most of his policies are dangerous and divisive. He has operated his entire campaign based on direct contact with voters, eschewing the niceties of delegate math and the arduous task of large-scale fundraising that make up the very lifeblood of presidential nominating campaigns. And now, by persisting in the race, he threatens to deliver the Republicans their largest presidential defeat since 1964. For the sake of the very survival of the Republican Party, John Kasich must be stopped.

Ok, so the above description fits Donald Trump as well as it does Kasich, and Trump does it with celebratory ignorance and contempt for the political process. That fact, however, only enhances the disgraceful arrogance of the current Kasich campaign. At least Trump has some right to crow a little; he is, after all, the actual frontrunner with a solid lead in states and delegates won. Kasich, on the other hand, has no discernable path to the nomination and at every turn has acted to enhance, not diminish, Trump’s chances. If his campaign were really about country, if he really cared about the party, Kasich would have dropped out long ago. At a minimum, he might now be working strategically to deny Trump the nomination. Instead, Kasich has staggered wildly around the country, drunk on ego, delivering homilies to nothingness along the way.

Kasich has been running this con for a long time now. At first, the governor’s saccharine style and mushy message were tolerable enough, though they merited heavy eye rolls given his short-tempered reputation. He was dead in the national polls, though he managed a faint pulse in New Hampshire no different from Chris Christie or Jeb Bush. He was riding on a shoestring budget, but no more so than John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 attempts or other longshots who rode surprise early state victories to serious runs for the presidency. And though his claims to have single-handedly balanced the budget in the 1990s or turned around Ohio’s economy were dubious at best, his feigned moderation was somewhat refreshing in a field of seventeen scrambling rightward.

And yet, what exactly was, and is, Kasich running on? His most persistent themes are the need to “work together” and “restore some common sense,” the kind of banalities that would make Tony Robbins blush. To the extent there was any discernable differentiation between Kasich and his opponents, it is his hand-wringing and head-scratching over the other candidates’ overheated rhetoric. In terms of actual policies, though, there’s nothing behind the curtain. Not only is his talk of giving hugs and taking widows out for dinner incongruous with his gruff past, it is unrelated to forming a governing agenda. In any event, when you cut through all the happy-talk, it’s hard to find meaningful differences between Kasich and his opponents. He’s called for ground troops in Syria. He’s introduced a regressive tax cut plan. At a recent debate he called for “tolerance” when gay customers are denied service by photographers and bakers—tolerance, that is, by gay people for those who would discriminate against them. As Gail Collins so nicely summarized recently: “John Kasich is willing to allow a troubled teenager to get an abortion if she’s seduced by her father, but not if the seducer is the next-door neighbor. This is why Kasich’s the moderate.” So, no, John Kasich is not a unique breed or indispensable candidate. What rationale, then, exists for his persistence? The only intelligible principle of the Kasich campaign is to elect John Kasich.

Even that premise is not so clear. His fervent belief that only he can “get things done,” and his dismissal of others in the professional political class, is awfully similar to Trump’s message. But at least Trump is winning. In Kasich’s New Hampshire “victory speech,” the one he gave after finishing a distant second place, he told the assembled crowd: “But you know, there’s something that’s going on, that I’m not sure that anybody can quite understand. There’s magic in the air with this campaign.” Yes, the campaign was so magical that Kasich managed a meager 15.8% of the vote, a full 19.5% behind Trump and just a hair ahead of the three-car pile-up of Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio just behind in double digits. As written here two months ago, “even if Kasich surges and finishes in third with a surprising 17%, he’s just not going to get the usual oxygen from such a result, especially if Trump laps the field, another contestant edges him for second, and the other candidates are bunched closely behind. The only way a losing candidate will get a considerable boost out of New Hampshire is to significantly separate himself from the rest of the field.” Indeed, except for the fact that Kasich managed to squeak out second instead of third, that exact scenario came to pass. Kasich finished an anemic fifth in both South Carolina and Nevada. By any reasonable measure, it was time to call it quits. Jeb Bush did just that after South Carolina, despite achieving roughly similar results to Kasich in the first three states. Yet, Kasich did not take the hint.

By staying in the race after South Carolina and Nevada, Kasich crippled Rubio’s chances at emerging as the clear Trump challenger on Super Tuesday. Despite his many flaws, Rubio was the Republican mainstream’s best hope at defeating both Trump and Cruz and retaining some semblance of normalcy and hope of victory in the Fall campaign. Kasich not only siphoned off the moderate vote from Rubio’s tally, costing him delegate thresholds throughout the South and a victory in at least Virginia, he undermined Rubio’s renewed attacks on Trump by lumping the other candidates into one indistinguishable stew of negativity (“let’s stop fighting”). Though there was a possibility of mounting a charge as late as the March 15th winner-take-all contests in Florida and Ohio, the practical reality was that the Republican challengers needed to head off Trump’s lead in the eleven states voting on March 1st. Kasich’s continued presence in the race extinguished that hope.

Never mind all that, Kasich told the country. If he could just win the one state where he was already universally known and had spent his entire career, well that would shake up the race! Kasich was successful in this inane strategy, winning his home state of Ohio and its 66 delegates. Then, with the attention of the political world finally upon him, he laid out his strategy for success in his victory speech:

Tonight, tonight we arrived in Cleveland and we went to a restaurant…It’s been my intention to have young people all across this country watch somebody enter into politics even though I labored in obscurity for so long people counting me out, people in Ohio saying, “Why don’t they ever call on him?” Ok? We get all that…And if we are a neighbor, that means that widow who was married for 50 years who no one calls anymore, you want to change the world? You take her to dinner on Saturday night. She’ll wear that dress she hadn’t worn in six months. I trust you to do it.

Or…not. Instead, he delivered a mad-lib of convoluted uplift and self-aggrandizement. As for being counted out, Kasich seemed unaware that there was good reason for that. He was out. Ohio was his first primary victory in thirty-three nominating contests (including territories) to date, spanning over a month and a half. Yet, Kasich’s delusions of winning are far grander than even that fact would suggest. Kasich could win every remaining delegate in every remaining state and still not obtain the 1,237 necessary to secure the nomination. He is mathematically eliminated from contention. In describing this “strategic anomaly of the Kasich campaign,” New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore observed:

The one thing we know right now with a high degree of certainty is that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are going to arrive in Cleveland ranked first and second in bound delegates, together holding a sizable and perhaps an overwhelming majority. How exactly does it transpire that these delegates…will on some second or third or fourth ballot settle on the candidate they’ve both regularly trounced in the primaries and who epitomizes the veteran elected official RINOs their supporters despise?

Political number-cruncher Sam Wang went so far as to conclude that Trump would benefit from Kasich’s Ohio triumph. That is, the value to Trump of Kasich’s continued presence in the race by fracturing the vote was greater than the 66 delegates he lost to the Governor.

To recap: Kasich described himself as presenting a stark contrast with the rest of the field despite this paper-thin policy agenda and right-wing past. He failed to gain traction in the polls. He acknowledged the emptiness of Trump’s agenda without ever seriously condemning him. He then spun his tepid New Hampshire performance into a great triumph, excusing his anemic showing throughout every region of the country for the next month. He mortally wounded Rubio. He went all-in on Ohio, serving to glorify his parochial hold on the Buckeye state while damaging Cruz’s chances without benefitting his own. All the while portraying himself as the realist.

Kasich’s actions have only gotten more confused in the last ten days. He perplexingly refused to debate Cruz in Utah after Trump withdrew from the event, denying both of them needed Trump-free media exposure. Moreover, his recent campaign strategy has shown complete indifference to the basic rules governing delegate accumulation. Supposedly the strongest candidate in the Northeast, he failed to file a full slate of delegates in Maryland. Then, Kasich directly undermined Cruz in Utah by campaigning there despite little hope of winning delegates for himself. At this point, the only way for either Kasich or Cruz to emerge as the nominee is to prevent Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed for election on the first ballot. Thus, every strategic action they take should primarily be designed to deny delegates to Trump. Under Utah law, if a candidate wins a majority of the primary vote, he receives all of the state’s delegates; if no candidate does so, then all delegates are awarded proportionally. Cruz was polling near 50%. Kasich’s efforts in the Beehive state, then, could only serve to diminish Cruz’s chances at an outright majority, which offered a slim chance of adding delegates to Kasich’s total but would guarantee some delegates to Trump, as well. It was a nonsensical and egotistic ploy that clearly angered party leaders. Mitt Romney subsequently announced he would vote for Cruz in Utah, stating that “a vote for Governor Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that Trumpism would prevail[,]” only a week after campaigning for Kasich in Ohio. Now, with important contests upcoming next month in the Northeast, Kasich headed instead to Cruz-friendly Wisconsin.

It’s not clear that Kasich is aware of any of these delegate details. Instead, as evidenced by his prior singular focus on Ohio, he’s absorbed only by elevating his profile and perception. As Jim Newell explained this month in Slate:

Kasich’s path to the presidential nomination involves winning his home state and perhaps a handful more, racking up a few hundred delegates, getting the party establishment to change certain rules at the convention to allow his name to even be entered for the nomination, and then using the full corrupt heft of various party establishments to offer money and jobs to delegates in order to corral a majority. It would also mean leaping past the two top delegate earners as allocated by voting. All of this would be defended as allowed within the Republican Party’s “rules,” which will not be an acceptable excuse to Republican voters who already believe that the official GOP is a rigged, corrupt institution. One can hardly think of a better validation of that view than a Kasich nomination and the substantially undemocratic strings that would have to be pulled to get there.

Donald Trump is a con-man; that’s been well established. He’s telling economically depressed, racially resentful voters what they want to hear and selling himself as a universal salve for the country’s problems despite lacking any semblance of a coherent agenda or history of accomplishment. But John Kasich is very much running his own, different kind of con. In a campaign ostensibly based on mutual understanding, on working together, on basic competence, Kasich has exhibited none of those tendencies. At every turn he’s acted in his own perceived interests at the expense of stopping a Trump coronation. That wouldn’t be quite so bad if Kasich had ever held a chance of victory, or if a Trump nomination weren’t such a catastrophic prospect for the Republican Party. Instead, Kasich fiddles in Ohio while the party burns. Let’s dispel with this fiction that John Kasich knows what he’s doing. He has no idea what he’s doing.

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