April 30, 2015


The Bullish Charisma of John Kasich (MOLLY BALL, 4/30/15, The Atlantic)

If only, Republican voters might be thinking, there were a candidate who could appeal to blue-collar voters but also mingle with the GOP establishment. A governor who'd proven he could run a large state but who also had national experience. Someone who'd won tough elections and maintained bipartisan popularity in an important swing state. A candidate whose folksy demeanor and humble roots would contrast nicely with Hillary Clinton's impersonal, stiffly scripted juggernaut.

That's Kasich's pitch, in a nutshell.

He's not well known among the national Republican base or conservative activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nor has he begun to do the sorts of things--hiring big-name national consultants, seeking commitments from donors--that would put him on the radar of the pundits tracking the race. But he has a large and loyal potential fundraising base (he raised nearly $30 million for his reelection campaign despite a weak opponent), a knack for commanding a room in an unorthodox manner, and credentials that demand to be taken seriously.

Kasich has managed a $72 billion state budget and served on the House Armed Services Committee. He won 86 of Ohio's 88 counties in his reelection, including Cleveland's Cuyahoga County--unheard-of for a Republican: In 2012, President Obama won Cuyahoga by a two-to-one margin. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in January that Kasich was the most underrated potential Republican candidate, describing him as "fresh but seasoned and managerial." If he does get in the race, says John Weaver, a Texas-based GOP consultant who was John McCain's chief strategist, "he would absolutely be a threat for the nomination."

Kasich, however, has a couple of weaknesses of his own. He has frequently defied his party's right wing, including on the hot-button issue of Obamacare. And he has a combustible personality that strikes some as refreshing and genuine but others as erratic. "He's not an ordinary politician," says Keith Faber, the president of the Ohio Senate, who accompanied Kasich to New Hampshire. "Before he answers a question, he doesn't sit and think, 'Oh, what is the least controversial way to discuss this so no one will misinterpret me?' He says what he thinks." If Kasich runs for president, as he now seems almost certain to do, that quality could make him 2016's most interesting entrant.

The thing about John Kasich is, he's kind of a jerk.

Lobbyists in Columbus warn their clients before meeting the governor not to take it personally if he berates them. A top Ohio Republican donor once publicly vowed not to give Kasich a penny after finding him to be "unpleasantly arrogant." As a congressman, Kasich sometimes lashed out at constituents--one who called him a "redneck" in a 1985 letter got a reply recommending he "enroll in a remedial course on protocol"--and when Kasich was thrown out of a Grateful Dead concert for trying to join the band onstage, he allegedly threatened to use his clout to have the band banned from D.C. As I was writing this article, Kasich's press secretary, Rob Nichols, helpfully emailed me the thesaurus entry for "prickly," sensing that I would need it.

I spent several days with Kasich in Ohio in February, and during that time he told me, repeatedly, that he did not read The Atlantic--and his wife didn't, either. He said that my job, writing about politics and politicians, was "really a dumb thing to do." Later, he singled me out in a meeting of cabinet officials to upbraid me for what he considered a stupid question in one of our interviews. At a Kasich press conference I attended at a charter school in Cleveland, he interrupted several speakers, wandered off to rummage on a nearby teacher's desk as he was being introduced, and gleefully insulted the Cleveland Browns, to a smattering of boos.

But while Kasich can be rude--and at times even genuinely nasty--he is also prone to spontaneous displays of empathy, frequently becoming emotional as he talks about the plight of people "in the shadows." To his allies, these traits are two sides of the same coin. They describe Kasich as a sort of heartland Chris Christie--brash, decisive, authentic--without all the baggage. "He does have a tendency to ready-fire-aim," says Mike Hartley, who helped run Kasich's 2010 campaign for governor and worked in his administration. "But here's the thing--he makes things happen. His will is tremendous, and he gets people to follow him. He's an ass-kicker." Like Christie, Kasich can be a compelling speaker; he's a good storyteller, and his brusqueness gives him a similar sort of anti-charisma. A 2010 article in Columbus's alternative weekly recounted multiple episodes of Kasich's boorishness, only to conclude that "perhaps Ohio could use a good SOB in the Governor's Mansion."

Kasich's peremptory, irreverent manner, and his way of seeming to be perpetually going in a million directions at once, can strike observers as flightiness. One national Democratic strategist told me he considered Kasich "a bit of a flake," and a Republican consultant described him to me as "abrasive." The fixation on his unusual personality galls Kasich; he believes it ignores the substance of his accomplishments. At a "politics and eggs" breakfast in New Hampshire, when an audience member asked what his detractors say about him, Kasich copped to being frequently described as undisciplined. "You get a short time with me and you might go, 'Wow, what the heck do we have here?'" he said. "Well, I'm an energetic guy, and I'm not going to change it."

Bob Klaffky, a Columbus-based Republican lobbyist and consultant who has been close to Kasich since the early 1980s, says Kasich's greatest weakness is also his greatest strength. "He comes across as very genuine, sincere, and candid, but then again, in politics, not being scripted can be a weakness." Kasich's loose-cannon image may be more calculated than it appears, however: Despite seeming perpetually off-the-cuff, he rarely makes gaffes serious enough that he has to apologize for them. (The time he publicly referred to a cop who pulled him over as an "idiot" was a notable exception.)

"How do you go from an $8 billion deficit to a $2 billion surplus--while cutting taxes, reforming health care, reforming welfare, reforming education--if you're not disciplined?" Kasich told me. "People seem to be fixated on my energy level. What people need to understand is, if you don't have a lot of energy, you can't get a lot done." Kasich seemed to be on the verge of a full-blown rant, but he stopped himself. "It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm not everybody's cup of tea. Nobody is."

Posted by at April 30, 2015 3:07 PM

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