If the Republican presidential campaign were “American Idol” or “The Voice,” this would be the out-of-town auditions phase. Governors across the country are giving State of the State addresses, unveiling their visions. Let’s spin the chairs and grade the contenders, to see who deserves a shot at the big show.
John Kasich: A.
The Ohio governor is easily the most underestimated Republican this year. He just won a landslide victory in the swingiest of the swing states. He carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties. He won Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, and which President Barack Obama won by 40 points in 2012.
Kasich is the Republican version of Jerry Brown: experienced but undisciplined in an honest, unvarnished way. If he shows he can raise money, and if voters want someone fresh but seasoned and managerial, he might be the guy.
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The inaugural address he delivered Monday was a straight-up values speech. But it wasn’t about values the way Pat Robertson used to define them. It was traditional values expressed in inclusive, largely secular form.
“I think the erosion of basic values that made our nation great is the most serious problem facing our state and our nation today,” he said. “And I’m not talking about those volatile issues.”
He built his speech around empathy, resilience, responsibility and other virtues: “You know why this happened? Too fixated on ourselves. It’s all about me. And somehow we have lost the beautiful sound of our neighbors’ voices. Moving beyond ourselves and trying to share in the experience of others helps us open our minds, allows us to grow as people. It helps us become less self-righteous. Did you ever find that in yourself? I do … self-righteous.”
Kasich has a long conservative record, but in his speech he celebrated government workers, like the woman who runs his job and family services department. He argued that economic growth is not an end unto itself, especially when it’s not widely shared.
Kasich, a working-class kid, spoke as a small government conservative who sometimes uses government to advance Judeo-Christian values. His mantra is, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
Chris Christie: A-minus.
Bridgegate did some damage, but it clearly wasn’t fatal. Whatever can be said about the New Jersey governor, he grabs attention - essential in a crowded field.
Like all smart Republicans in the post-Romney era (yes, we’re in it), Christie is working hard to prove he understands the everyday concerns of the poor and the middle class. He spent a good chunk of his address describing his efforts to work with the Democratic mayor of Camden to bring in jobs, fight poverty and reduce crime in that city. It was a bipartisan, government-efficiency pitch: “We terminated the city police department and, partnering with the county, put a new metro division on the streets with 400 officers for the same price we were paying for 260. … What are the results? Murder down 51 percent, in what was once called the most dangerous city in America.”
As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post noticed, Christie defined anxiety as America’s most daunting problem. He said that as he traveled the country, “anxiety was the most palpable emotion that I saw and felt. More than anger, more than fear.” Christie hasn’t quite nailed down the nature of that anxiety, or what to do about it, but he’s clearly hit on an essential theme for an era of economic growth but dissatisfaction.
Scott Walker and Mike Pence: B-plus.
The Wisconsin and Indiana governors are both versions of what used to be called working-class, Sam’s Club Republicanism. Walker never graduated from college.
In their State of the State addresses, both boasted about the same sorts of accomplishments: dropping unemployment rates, state surpluses, rising graduation rates, lower taxes. Walker mentioned jobs programs for people with disabilities. Pence, who has devoted more effort to fighting poverty, touted his new pre-K education program. Both have good records, but neither speech had anything that was narratively or thematically innovative or of much interest to people outside their states.
At this stage in the race it’s best to evaluate candidates the way you evaluate pitchers during the first week of spring training. Don’t think about polls, donor gossip or who has the front-runner label. Ask who makes the catcher’s glove pop loudest. Who has the stuff that makes you do a double take?
Among the governors, Kasich and Christie have shown they can take the values of religious conservatives and use them to inform Republican economic and domestic priorities. That’s essential if the party is going retain its business and religious base and also reach the struggling and disaffected.