For Republicans, this primary season has served more as identity crisis than an election cycle. Witnessing this process is similar to watching a GOP base eat a political artichoke, peeling away layers of candidates until they reach the fundamental heart of the Republican Party, reflected in the few remaining candidates.
Republican leaders must hate artichoke hearts. Donald Trump’s controversial statements and Ted Cruz’s unyielding conservatism have called into question what exactly the core values espoused by the party are. The candidates’ divisive platforms include deporting all 12 million illegal immigrants, banning Muslim travel (Trump) and outlawing gay marriage and abortion (Cruz).
Although such ideas find traction with the GOP base, party bigwigs fear they will alienate moderate voters in the general election.
“Establishment” candidates Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Lindsey Graham all experienced their brief flashes of media spotlight, only to be discarded by the implacable Republican base. Only one, lesser-known establishment candidate remains: Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Why does John Kasich remain in this race? From the outset, he has received less media attention than almost any other candidate. People still generally don’t know who he is.
Kasich currently trails Cruz by 10 and Trump by 25 points in the polls. Throughout this election cycle, a plethora of qualified establishment candidates have wilted away under the intensity of Trump and Cruz. What makes John Kasich a plausible candidate where so many others have failed?
John Kasich’s appeal rests in circumstance: he is all the GOP establishment has left. If Trump or Cruz win the nomination, they will become the face of the Republican Party, reshaping it in their image. Their image — their values, their policy proposals, their furious rhetoric and bombast — is not one the GOP establishment wants to reflect.
Kasich is a viable alternative to Trump and Cruz for Republican leaders, embodying much of what they are looking for. He is seen as a true conservative with some moderate stances.
On economic issues, Kasich runs the conservative gamut. After a second place New Hampshire finish, he called for “no more federal regulations outside of health and safety for one year.”
As governor, Kasich strove to limit the collective bargaining power of unions. On taxes, Kasich wants to cut the top tax bracket from 39.6 to 28 percent, cut the long-term capital gains tax to 15 percent, cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent and eliminate the estate tax. Such anti-regulation, anti-union and anti-tax policies fit comfortably inside Republican orthodoxy.
Kasich begins to straddle the political divide in his social policies. At an Iowa forum he discussed a path to legal status and possibly citizenship for illegal immigrants, as a part of compromise rather than his own personal desires.
Regarding gay marriage, Kasich supports hetero-normative marriage but told CBS’ Face the Nation that “the [supreme] court has ruled and it’s time to move on.” He has admitted climate change is real, reduced time for nonviolent criminal offenders, expanded Medicaid under Obamacare and expressed discomfort at outlawing abortions in the case of rape or incest.
Although anti-abortion, anti-path-to-citizenship, anti-gay marriage and anti-Obamacare, Kasich’s willingness to put aside ideology for the sake of compromise is admirable.
The current attitude of the GOP base will be Kasich’s biggest hurdle — outraged Republican voters do not want compromise. While a stunning 70 percent of Democrat and Democratic-leaning voters said they believe Kasich would be an average, good, or great president in a Pew poll (granted, Kasich has received little exposure, so his cross-party support will be high), Kasich has found it challenging for his message to resonate amid Trump and Cruzes’ angry buzz in the primaries.
Ultimately, Kasich’s presence in the primaries will only matter in the long run if he is nominated at a contested convention. A victorious Trump or Cruz will drown out and trample any moderating force from the primary, just like they have with the other establishment Republican candidates.
Everyone can and should applaud Kasich for his bipartisan attitude, civilized demeanor during debates and speeches and persistence, regardless of whether they agree with him on the issues. But unless he wins the nomination, he cannot save the GOP.