Orange County isn’t Richard Nixon’s Southern California anymore. The unending suburbia once synonymous with white, Christian, Chrysler-driving conservatives is now more than half Latino and Asian, and last year it voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time since 1936. The Crystal Cathedral, from which the Rev. Robert Schuller launched his televangelism empire, now houses a Catholic diocese brimming with immigrants.
But it was the old O.C. that gathered at the beautifully renovated Nixon library on the first Friday in May — lots of white hair and buzz cuts, suits and blazers buttoned in the heat. These were rear-guard Republicans, sentries of establishment conservatism making their final stand.
And the man they came to see — at 30 bucks a pop — was John Kasich.
Standing at a podium with the presidential seal, Ohio’s second-term governor, the last candidate to stand down against Donald Trump in last year’s primaries, delivered a meandering speech that was half inspirational sermon, half populist lament. He slammed United and Wells Fargo for corporate recklessness, railed against the “coarsening of the society,” warned of the “drift toward self-absorption.”
An enthusiastic, born-again Christian, Kasich criticized an executive order, issued by President Trump the day before, that lifted some restrictions on politicking in places of worship. “I don’t believe these religious people ought to be endorsing candidates,” he said. “They ought to be figuring out how to clothe the homeless or feed the poor, not all of this political nonsense.”
He lambasted the shift from “objective reality to subjective reality” in Washington. He trashed the health care bill the president had just pushed through the House, saying it wouldn’t protect those at risk of losing their insurance.
“You may have heard I’m not the biggest fan of Donald Trump,” Kasich said, eliciting chuckles and, from about half the room, applause.
A man in the back stood up and shouted: “You didn’t insult anybody!”
“That’s why I’m not in the White House,” Kasich said, shrugging involuntarily while the corners of his mouth flared into a smile, the way he often does.
Yorba Linda was the last major stop on Kasich’s frenetic, month-long book tour. His latest memoir has one of those anodyne political titles — “Two Paths” — but is in fact a surprisingly personal argument for a new kind of spirituality in conservative politics. Kasich wants to see less of the fire-and-damnation doctrine that exists on the religious right and more of the Judeo-Christian values of tolerance and civility.
In events and interviews, though, Kasich’s spiritual musings have been eclipsed by questions about what he’s really up to. Kasich was probably the only Republican candidate to emerge from last year’s primaries more widely admired — at least among the general electorate — than he went into them, and he’s pointedly refused to rule out another primary run against Trump in 2020.
There’s no real historical analogue for something like that. Sitting presidents have been challenged, of course, most recently in 1992, when Pat Buchanan ran against George Bush. But in every case you can think of, the challenger was a movement figure bent on overturning the party establishment. No moderate, governing type like Kasich has ever tried to restore order by ousting an insurgent president.
Then again, we’ve never had a leader like Trump. As we sat in the anteroom down the hall from the Watergate exhibit, the current president was fending off investigations into the covert influence of a foreign rival, while his approval ratings hovered below 40 percent.
And this was before Trump leaked classified intelligence to the Russians, causing one Republican senator to warn of a “downward spiral” just four months into the presidency.
Was I catching Kasich at the end of the tour, or was this only the beginning?
There seemed to be an unusual dynamic in the room at Yorba Linda, which was familiar to me from the couple of large conservative audiences I’d met since the election. Just about everyone in the room had voted for Trump, and if you surveyed them, probably nine out of 10 would tell you they were glad they did.
But when Kasich criticized the president for his temperament or his policies, there were claps and bobbing heads in every row, and almost no one seemed visibly put off.
All of which jibes with what you see in most polls, even if pundits often misread the data. Basically, old-line Republicans felt then — and feel now — that Trump was the necessary cost of keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House, and they were willing to give him an audition. But nothing Trump’s done since Election Day has convinced them that he’s the right guy for the job.
For these voters, Kasich holds himself out as his party’s anti-Trump. Where Trump is biting and boastful, Kasich is unrelentingly upbeat and self-improving. Where Trump is all about personal victories, Kasich talks constantly about a divine purpose.
Where Trump would scrap trade deals and social programs, Kasich advances a Rooseveltian (Teddy, not Franklin) faith in progressive, globalist government.
“See, I’m a positive populist, and Trump is a negative populist,” Kasich told me after the speech. I asked him about the only meeting he’d had so far with President Trump, where he offered his advice on health care in the Oval Office.
“I think Trump would have gone for anything,” Kasich said. “He’s not hung up on this particular policy or that. That’s what I think. I think there’s a tug of war for him inside the White House, among those who are ideological and those who are not.
“You know, the problem you have is that this is a guy who ran his own operation. He’s a real estate guy. He didn’t have to think about all these things. So the question is, is there an underlying philosophy he has as to how this moves forward? I don’t know.”
Kasich, who served in Congress for 18 years, told me that Trump later called to ask him to get behind the House bill. “If the bill is what I think it is, I can’t support it,” he told the president.
“Does it matter what I think?” Kasich asked me. “I don’t know. It must, because some people I used to work with want me to be quiet. But I’m not going to be quiet.”
I reminded Kasich, then, of what he had told me more than once during our frequent conversations last year — that he was running his last campaign. Was he standing by that now, a week before his 65th birthday?
“Probably,” he said.
So now he was wavering?
“No,” he said, chewing a Double-Double from the In-N-Out Burger. “It’s just that my people said, ‘Why are you making these declarations? People want to be hopeful about something, so why are you saying this?’ I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“People are dwelling on this, and it’s ridiculous,” Kasich said, dismissing the entire subject.
People were dwelling on it, I pointed out, because he was out there drumming up crowds and taking stands against the president. I suggested maybe he was being coy.
“Nobody’s trying to be coy or cute,” Kasich said, shaking his head emphatically. “I’m going to raise money for my efforts and to have a voice. But I’m not going around the states lining up people or finding chairmen. I’m not doing any of that.”
Kasich volunteered that he was still rooting for Trump to be a less divisive president, which is why he’d been discouraged by the raucous rally Trump held in Pennsylvania on the night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington. “The election’s over,” he said, shaking his head.
We talked a bit then about faith and the meaning of populism, and then Kasich seemed to double back to the question he’d been working hard to sidestep.
“Here’s the thing that I’ve thought about,” he said. “Do I have a base? Can someone like me — can they attract people and be powerful in politics?”
He stared at me for a moment, as if I might provide the answer. I stared back.
“Well, as I look at this tour, I’m more and more hopeful that you can,” he said. “But here’s the problem. If you’re Bernie, and you’re out there wanting to tear down the whole economic system, or Elizabeth Warren, or if you’re out here on the right wanting to tear everything down, you get crowds and you get noise. But I’m not sure that’s where the country is.
“So a person who’s out here trying to have a civil discussion and come up with complicated solutions for complicated problems has that big silent majority, I think. And maybe the primary elections didn’t reveal it, but I’ve got to tell you, my personal experiences are overwhelming to me.”
But wasn’t that the whole lesson of the primaries? That civility and complexity were a losing proposition?
“I think it’s just the opposite!” Kasich said, warming to the subject now. “I think you can win a primary. Because you just overwhelm these people who are the angry people out there, or the loud people. You get elected to public office because people get a sense that you’re a leader, that you get them. I don’t think you get elected because you get a bunch of people yelling and screaming.”
Last year, Kasich had decided, was an oddity — a freak moment when the pent-up emotions of the electorate had collided with an expert manipulator of emotions and a media enthralled with ratings at any cost.
“I think we reached a fever pitch, and the question is, does the fever continue or does it break?” he said. “And I think it’s going to break. If I went back to Ohio and started insulting people, they’d run me out of the place. We were in a moment of time, and I think it’s going to break.”
At one point, when we were talking about Kasich’s “silent majority” (by which he meant something considerably sunnier than Nixon had when he first proffered the term nearly 50 years ago), Kasich told me a story about going to the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York last November.
“As I walked to my seat, people stood and cheered,” he said. “And I sat down and I was stunned. And my wife, who, you know, isn’t a big political animal, she just said, ‘John, they’re proud of you. And you should be proud of you too.’”
He paused for a moment, evidently in awe at the memory.
“And some snarky reporter will say, well, that’s self-praise or whatever,” Kasich went on, coming back to the world. “That’s not what I’m trying to communicate. I’m trying to say that people get it. People understand what matters in life. And the extremes may be the ones who are the most boisterous, who go to rallies and all that, but most people who want to see problems solved in a rational and a steady way, they don’t go to rallies. They’re too busy working.”
A politician couldn’t look for validation in crowds, Kasich told me, sounding a little like a therapist. You had to do what seemed right and feel good about it.
“I’m so happy with myself!” he burst out then. “I’m so happy with this book! I’m so happy with this tour. I’m so happy with how my family is being treated, the way my friends look at me and talk to me. It’s great! And there’s not a single thing I would change!
“I’m a happy guy,” he said, “and not looking forward to another political campaign, no matter how hard that is for people to believe.”
The thing is, to my own surprise, I did believe him. And that’s actually the best prism through which to understand what Kasich is doing.
Those of us who follow politics for a long time tend to see everything as tactical, the transparent means to some carefully calculated end. When a politician who’s out there writing books and giving speeches says “I don’t know” to another campaign, what we hear is: “I’m not at the announcement phase of the PowerPoint yet.”
But there are times, you come to learn, when a politician is motivated more by self-image than self-interest. There are moments — John McCain in 2000 comes to mind — when a candidate falls almost by accident into a public role that seems, at least for a while, to have awakened in him some sense of a larger purpose.
That’s where Kasich seems to be now. Like Trump, Kasich, the son of a mailman, has been labeled insecure and narcissistic over the years, sometimes humiliating critics before hearing them. As Kasich himself put it to me: “I’m not that great. Someone’s going to have me on a camera phone being a jerk. It’s inevitable.”
But where Trump’s romp through last year’s contentious primaries seems to have bored in him an even deeper well of self-doubt and defensiveness, Kasich — who won only a single state, his own — seems to have come away oddly at peace.
What happened was that Kasich’s public persona finally came into line with the way he always hoped people would see him — as a kind of self-helpy, statesmanlike figure, less concerned with partisan pressure than with the judgment of some higher power. If you disagree with him now, he’s as likely to bear-hug you as to jab a finger in your face.
So when Kasich says he isn’t plotting to unseat an old rival whose approval rating has fallen to 36 percent, when he says he has nothing more to prove and no idea what’s next, I tend to take him at his word.
And if I were Trump, and if I hoped to commandeer the party for another term after this one, maybe that’s exactly why I’d start to worry.
In politics, nothing’s quite so dangerous as a guy who considers himself the instrument of a larger plan, even if he doesn’t yet have one of his own.
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