John Kasich begins his town hall gatherings in New Hampshire with a trip down memory lane. On a sparkling Super Bowl Sunday, at his 101st town hall, he came before jam-packed auditorium at a Nashua Community College and made a point of countering the doom-and-gloom jeremiads of his Republican rivals by summoning remembrances of past glories. He told of how he sat alongside his parents and watched men walk on the moon; how as a kid he met Ronald Reagan and, better still, Jimmy Stewart (after whose manner, minus the stammer, he somewhat models his own); how Reagan and Tip O’Neill relaxed over drinks and saved Social Security; how the Berlin Wall came down thanks to Reagan’s resoluteness. Into this flow of world historic moments, he weaves an account of his own career, taking credit for the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s (he was then chair of the House Budget Committee) and for balancing the budget while creating jobs in Ohio. (He omits, of course, his stint at as a Lehman Brothers managing director before the mega-bank’s collapse in the 2008 financial crisis.)
It’s all very casual, nostalgic, and perfectly suited to his audience, which, like every Republican audience these days, is all white, largely middle-aged and older, but which unlike those turning up for other GOP candidates is not simmering with rage. Nor does Kasich seek to stoke any anger that may lurk in the corners of even moderate conservatives’ consciousness. He never so much as mentions President Barack Obama or Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In responding to a question about the inadequacies of the Veterans Administration, Kasich even praises the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, former Proctor & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald—an old friend—without mentioning, to be sure, that he’s an Obama appointee.
If there’s to be a John Kasich Moment in this election cycle, it’s probably happening right now. Marco Rubio’s flame-out in Saturday night’s GOP debate effectively ended Rubio’s brief run as the presumptive “establishment lane” candidate in this year’s contest. By contrast, Kasich had a good debate, getting across better than he has before his message of non-rabid conservatism. In a few recent New Hampshire polls (they are legion), Kasich has ranked second, and if old-school Republicans take flight from Rubio and turn to the Ohio governor in force on Tuesday, he just might finish second as well.
It’s hard to see where Kasich could go from there. His lack of anger (“I’m not threatening to bomb anyone,” he said), his acceptance of the Medicaid expansion that Obamacare provided his state, make him anathema on the Republican right, which is to say, to the bulk of the Republican Party. Nor is it clear whether Kasich’s themes really touch on either Republicans’ or the broader public’s concerns.
What Kasich is, fundamentally, is a balanced budget guy. The centerpiece of his candidacy is his pledge to advance a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which he says is something that, as president, he could do in eight years, amendment or no.
But balancing the budget ain’t what it used to be in the hierarchy of public concerns. (The mania for balanced budgets has also all but destroyed the nations of Southern Europe, but as this complicates Kasich’s argument with empirical data, we’ll examine it no further.) A Quinnipiac Poll from last summer asked Americans to select the issues they cared about most. The economy and jobs placed first at 37 percent; health care second at 13 percent; terrorism third at 12 percent (this was before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California); foreign policy fourth; immigration fifth; climate change sixth; and “the federal deficit” seventh, at 6 percent. In a sense, Kasich’s resurrection of budget balance as the linchpin of Republicanism, in a year when anti-immigrant and anti-modernist rage has consumed much of the party, is a throwback to an older Republicanism which starved the poor and constrained the middle class but didn’t snarl about it. It, too, is part of Kasich’s stroll down the GOP’s memory lane.
Small though the slice of the electorate marching to budget-balance drumbeat may be, it seems to make up the core of Kasich’s support. “With a balanced budget and no debt, we’d be unstoppable,” effused one local elected official who briefly preceded Kasich to the microphone. (“If the government creates jobs,” she continued with inexorable logic, “we’ll have more government-created jobs!”) Kasich’s criticisms of budget busters extended to Republicans as well as Democrats: When he quit Congress at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget was in surplus, which soon, he lamented, turned to deficits due to what he termed excessive spending by both parties. He knows that’s not true, of course; it was the Bush tax cuts, augmented by the costs of the Iraq War, that caused the surplus to vanish. That’s not the sort of thing that Kasich, or any other GOP candidate, can tell a Republican crowd, however.
Alone among this year’s crop of GOP hopefuls, Kasich is an on-the-other-hand guy. He wants to ban abortion, but says: “We need robust funding for women’s health.” He’s not allowed Ohio’s home-care workers to unionize, but says: “We should pay more to home-care workers.” He wants to cut the tax rate on capital gains from 20 percent to 15 percent, but professes concern for the economic plight of the working class. In a Kasich concert, the music is moderate, but the words—and the proposals —are relentlessly right-wing.
Most of the attendees with whom I spoke at the town hall were still candidate shopping before the event; some were still unsure whom they’d support after. All actually liked Kasich (for what it’s worth, the other candidate whom the people volunteered that they liked as a person was Bernie Sanders), but several said Kasich was probably too far down in the polls, Rubio’s bad debate night notwithstanding, to get their vote. Two college students —representing a demographic not much in evidence at the event—had seen their original preferences (Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee) drop out. They said they were interested in Kasich because they believed he could win in November, but weren’t sure he could win, or place high enough, next Tuesday. We’ll see, soon enough.