Each time I see long-shot Republican presidential contender John Kasich on the campaign trail, I’m reminded of an awkward moment spent with him several years ago at the San Diego Union-Tribune’s conference room.
Kasich stopped by to chat with our editorial staff and say hello to the Copley Press Executive Editor Herb Klein, Vice President Richard Nixon’s press secretary from 1952 to 1960. Although Herb had been spared the stain of the Watergate scandal, he remained a consummate loyalist to the nation’s disgraced 37th president. This placed the personable Kasich in a spot when he mentioned Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” Whereupon Klein snapped that there was no such list. A startled Kasich paused for a couple of seconds and promptly changed the subject.
Hardly a profile in courage, but the Ohio governor who won a landslide re-election in 2014 has since redeemed himself by taking on the blowhard, bullying GOP front-runners and steadfastly refusing to pander to the lowest common denominator in the Republican presidential primaries. That ideological fever swamp swoons to demagogic appeals, which explains why Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leading the pack, and why Sen. Marco Rubio became more strident the last few weeks to compete with them.
Even so, Kasich has remained the adult in the Republican field, resisting red-meat issues that cause arch-conservatives to salivate and repel the general electorate. He’s counting on a strong showing in Tuesday’s New Hampshire GOP primary.
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Kasich acknowledges climate change, favors reduced prison sentences for non-violent offenders, believes in a legalized path for millions of illegal immigrants, backs the Common Core school curriculum, wants to put aside the rancor on same-sex marriages and favors helping the truly needy. What’s more, he finessed his GOP legislature to approve a $13 billion Medicaid expansion to provide coverage to poor Ohioans.
In short, Kasich is a moderate conservative who gets things done through compromise. Problem is, he’s swimming against the tide of a party that has been hijacked by zealots, many of whom would regard Ronald Reagan as a RINO (Republican In Name Only) were they to check his record rather than cling to the fantasy of a pure conservative who never cut a deal with the other side.
Kasich’s story and record resonate with working-class voters. The son of a mail carrier whose immigrant grandparents worked in the coal mines, the 63-year-old served nine terms in Congress and was a key figure in passing the country’s first balanced budget in decades. Yes, he worked for a financial institution, but he’s critical of a political and economic system that preys on people who work hard, pay taxes, play by the rules. He refuses to fear-monger.
During scores of town hall meetings in New Hampshire, he’s exuded optimism. He doesn’t denounce Democrats for trying to destroy America, much less routinely bemoan a nation in decline. Instead, he reminds voters that America is a great country and that we are fortunate to live here. He also urges voters to choose someone who “can land the plane,” a not-so subtle reference to the mad bombers who appeal to the electorate’s baser instincts.
That helps explain why Kasich has received endorsement from several newspapers, including The New York Times, that could make him suspect among those hardliners who call the shots during Republican primaries. Which begs the question whether the Ohio governor can make a respectable showing in New Hampshire and stay in the race. If he does, this former Republican voter will cast my ballot for him in California come June, because I believe this nation deserves a rational two-party system that rejects extremism.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.