John Kasich is the Governor of Ohio, and won over four million votes in the battle to become the Republican nominee for President two years ago. He declined to endorse Donald Trump, and even decided not to attend the party’s nominating convention, despite it being held in his own state. At the Governor’s Mansion in Columbus, Ohio’s capital, I asked him about his reflections on the bruising encounter that was the 2016 Republican primary.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a very good way to pick who the President is, to begin with”. The contest has become “a cattle show where the reward goes for those who say the most incendiary things, and we sort of judge a person’s ability on the basis of flip quick answers.” What is needed is “a thorough conversation to determine the depth of that individual, what their knowledge is, what their leadership capabilities are.” The contest is part of an American tradition “but maybe it’s time to break tradition.” Not that Kasich was optimistic on the point: “I don’t think this will ever happen, because you won’t get good television ratings.”
Looking back on the campaign, was there anything he could have done differently that could have brought about a different outcome? “I don’t know. I can’t answer that.” But more to the point: “why would I do that to win? I mean, why should I change what I think or change what I do so I can win? What kind of a win is that? That’s a pretty hollow victory. Was I going to change my personality, and start screaming and shouting and taking positions I didn’t believe? That, people smell out. Also smell a fraud, too.”
The same principle applied to his outspoken criticisms of Donald Trump, and the potential implications for his own standing with the Republican base: “You can’t be worried about, you know, who’s going to be happy or who’s going to be angry.” In politics, “if all you’re trying to do is put your finger in the air and to assess where people are, the minute you assess where they are, they’re already gone from that place.”
It’s not that Kasich believes that the Trump presidency is completely without merit. “The idea that our allies ought to do more to defend themselves, I think that’s really important. The deregulation of American society it’s something that, you know, I think Macron wanted to do in France. I think Thatcher tried to do it. I don’t know how far along she got, but deregulation has been good. I believe in that. I believe the fact that the corporate tax rate was too high with the highest corporate tax rate.”
But, on the other hand, “he’s insulted leaders, he’s taken the America alone process to the point when working together would be much more effective. I thought in the beginning that the President could ultimately be a unifier. I now pretty much believe that’s not possible. He is not a person that believes in unifying, and he isn’t a person that likes to accept any personal responsibility – always blaming somebody else for the problems that we have. And, you know, that’s just not the way we’re used to seeing our leaders operate. And thank God we have a silent majority of Americans who really do care about their country, really do love one another and who don’t want to live in a totally conflicted society.”
Be that as it may, there is no denying that Trump’s support has remained solid, even among those who voted for him only reluctantly. Does Kasich see them ever peeling away? “Well, I know that one guy that I grew up with who said the reason he likes Trump is because his 401k [a retirement savings plan] is improved. Now, I don’t know what happens after the stock market tumbles. Does that mean he won’t like them anymore? I don’t know.”
America has become an unusually tribal environment, but “I don’t think that’s where people want to stay. I don’t think people want to live on the edge. I don’t think they want to live in a chaotic environment, but it’s going to be up to certain voices to be able to tell people that we are always better when we work together – that we’re always better when we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, we’re always better when we attack problems and solve them with determination and in a way that can stabilise a situation. People want to see good solutions for our country.”
The way the country should respond to the migrant caravan moving north from Honduras to the American border was a case in point. “I was born in America, God am I lucky, but if I were born in Guatemala and my daughter was being threatened with rape and my son killed if he wouldn’t become a drug mule, then I’d probably want to get out of there, and go somewhere where I could have a better life. And so in some respects I think of myself in that caravan… That doesn’t mean we open our borders, or anything like that, but it does mean that we need to have a heart for other people, that we have to put ourselves at times in other people’s shoes… We’ve forgotten about our common humanity. How did this happen?”
Despite all this, the Governor has remained a Republican, and continues to campaign for Republican candidates. I asked if he sometimes felt torn between loyalty to the party and opposition to its current leadership. “To be honest with you, not really. It’s pretty simple. This job as Governor has been really, frankly, pretty easy, because if you don’t take into account a whole lot of political considerations – it’s pretty easy when you’re driving a car to know whether you go left right or straight ahead. So do I feel torn? No, I don’t feel torn by that. I mean there’s things I feel torn about, you know, which golf swing should I use? That haunts me.”
Given his position on Trump and the direction that the Republican party has taken, would it not help to make the case if it were to lose control of Congress in the November elections? “Well, I think it would be a big wakeup call. But I am a Republican. I am a conservative. I’m more concerned about our country and more concerned about conservative activity than I am about the Republican Party. But I don’t want to see a whole bunch of people that want to go to some sort of a position of higher taxes, more spending, more government, more regulation. That doesn’t make me happy at all, and I think where the Democrats have fallen short has been their inability to articulate a platform where they could be appealing to people who say, you know ,this hard right position is bad, but if it’s a choice between hard right and hard left – well, we had that really in the presidential campaign. I voted for John McCain. So I guess that answers the question. You almost had me trapped there for a moment.”
Not at all surprisingly, the Governor is often asked whether he will be a candidate for President in 2020. And the answer? “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know how I’m going to impact the culture or the country. We just have to see how things unfold. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Not exactly a denial, then.
But whoever is the candidate, they will have to follow someone with singular, if not unique appeal. Will the current Republican voting coalition endure beyond the Trump era, or will it have to be rebuilt from scratch? “I think we’re going to have to see what it looks like after the midterm elections. And, you know, I’m not a fortune teller, and we’ve all been surprised with what we’ve seen develop in our country politically. And I just can’t, I don’t want to be in the prediction business.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but do I think that this country is going to settle down? Yes I do. But it’s going to take people to realise that the answers do not lie in big-time political types, but that really the strength of our country is in our own communities and lies with people who live right here in this neighborhood. We tend to think about politics as something that matters so much to us. But in the end, you know, who’s your Congressman or your Senator or who’s the President really doesn’t affect you much on a daily basis. What really affects you is how your kids are doing in school. Is your neighborhood safe? What are your neighbours like? Those are the things that really at the end of the day matter most to people.”
Listen to Lord Ashcroft’s full interview with Governor John Kasich in the Ashcroft in America podcast.