McKEES ROCKS, Pa. _ John Kasich is at his best in a town hall. At Montour High School outside of Pittsburgh on April 25, the Ohio governor spent an hour chatting with a few hundred loyal supporters who had come to see the man who, yes, really and truly, cannot mathematically win enough delegates to get the Republican nomination.
They came anyway. Middle-aged Pittsburghers, a few Millennials and some high school kids standing in line on a gorgeous spring day. Security was nearly nothing–just a few vested police officers and no Secret Service in sight. I wasn’t the only journalist who got no response from the campaign when I called, and emailed, to ask about event credentials. Turns out you could just wander in. I asked an earpieced young volunteer if I could stay in the press pen, and after I told him I was indeed a real reporter, he said “Fuck it, I don’t care.” I took this as permission to stay.
Incompetence and a dying campaign can sometimes look the same. And though it bodes poorly for Kasich, this chill scene was a pleasant change from the metal detectors, bomb dogs and protest atmosphere of Sanders, Clinton and Trump rallies.
We were in a gym. A few hundred people, maybe 1,000 total, lined the bleachers and sat on the floor in folding chairs. The music went from “Wagon Wheel” to “Don’t Stop Believing,” as if Kasich wanted to get the crowd more and more pumped. This mood culminated in Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City.” Did we, John Kasich? Did we build McKees Rocks on rock and roll?
No introductions for Kasich beyond dad rock. No union men or mayors. He’s John Kasich, and he’s ready to tell the crowd about his Uncle George (not a metaphor for America, but a man actually present) who worked at Montour High for 35 years, who kept an eye on Kasich after his parents were killed in a car wreck when he was in college.
Kasich is very good and very real when he talks about this stuff. He even made sort of a darkly humorous nod to blue-collar realness about how his parents were killed because they wanted that second free cup of Burger King coffee. It’s hard not to like Kasich at certain moments.
If you find Sanders and Trump alarming and childish on trade policy, Kasich sounds like he exists in reality when he points out that, no, industry can’t return to the U.S. if you only say the magic words. Kasich dropped the name Milton Friedman, insulted the death tax and delivered some grown-up econ ideas in an accessible fashion.
A Christian manner lurks within his speechifying. Kasich is not shy about mentioning his belief in God, and God’s plans, but he’s much subtler about it than Sens. Cruz or Rubio. Whether that makes him more trustworthy, or more sneaky, depends on your interpretation. He seems less excited about subjecting everyone to his own brand of Christianity, except when you remember that last fall he suggested the U.S. have a “Department of Judeo-Christian Western Values.” He did not mention it again after some unsurprising backlash, but he never disavowed the idea either. Nor has he ever truly addressed the fact that he once tried to remove the Coen Brothers classic Fargo from the shelves of Blockbuster. (Some things, Mr. Governor, are unforgivable.)
His attempt to be the adult in the race (albeit the mathematically eliminated adult) involves even the stage dressing. The simple, casual soap box stage, the presence of an endlessly climbing national debt clock, and oh, yes, a sign that read “A Strong America is a Safe America.” But that came later. Being an ardent hawk, like Kasich is, did not vibe with the sunny spring town hall atmosphere.
Kasich can be charming, if a little sleepy. One thing he clearly can’t do is give a speech with a climax or any kind of get-psyched atmosphere at all. And he’s not self-aware enough to avoid stepping all over a moment.
When a high school senior asked to have her textbook signed, she shared an amusing exchange with Kasich about damaging school property. The girl said that she had her teacher’s permission, so Kasich obliged. First, however, he interrupted the real moment for a cringey, condescending aside about how an 11-year-old had recently asked him a question, and kids today are just terrific. The Ohio governor stopped a real, cute moment with a would-be voter to condescend about children in the abstract. And there you have the limits of politics, and the limits of John Kasich. Just when he has begun to win you over a little, his “Aw, Shucks, I Just Wanna be President 2016” programming kicks in.
The suspicious earnestness appeared again when Kasich said it would be OK if he wasn’t elected, “As long as I don’t take the low road to the highest office in the land.” It is one of those would-be great lines that would satisfy a speechwriter, but it’s pushing it in terms of folksy bullshit. The presidency is serious, powerful, and deadly, sometimes. Does niceness have anything to do with it? And is Kasich truly this guileless? He at least believes he believes he is.
But he’s a mix, really. He’s an actual human being, perhaps slightly more of one than many politicians. This was aptly demonstrated when a voice from the crowd yelled out a question about encryption. Kasich had a chance to play snob, like so many politicians would have, and to demand that the man be polite, wait his turn or even have him booted from the gym. Instead, the governor didn’t flinch at the rudeness, didn’t lecture and simply answered the question. Unfortunately, the answer was rubbish. It was the same damn answer about there being a middle road between safety and security that Cruz, Sanders and Clinton have given. But since Kasich is the daddest of them all, after a brief nod to not wanting “the government to have all my stuff,” he suggested that if he was president he would lock the intelligence community and the tech community in a room together and not let them out until they figured it out. (They have figured it out, but nobody near a position of power wants to hear what the tech community wants: to let it design it products how it sees fit.)
During the grotesquery of the 2016 election, it’s easy to see some of the doomed candidate’s likable qualities, mainly by way of contrast. But he simply isn’t presidential.
After answering questions, sort of brushing off his feeble “alliance” with Ted Cruz as mere “target(ing) of resources, because we’re going to head to an open convention,” and being confidently wrong about encryption, suddenly Kasich transformed in the final minutes of the town hall from Kind Kasich into Killer Kasich. ISIS hates us. “They don’t want us to exist,” and “We’re going to have to take them out.” We have to arm Ukrainians. We have to do this with various coalitions, because that’s the adult way of being a hawk–soldiers, bullets, missiles, drones–you know, the usual stuff.
Yep, that John Kasich–hell of a nice guy, until he starts raining drone-bombs down on people half a planet away.
After he finished, the music began to blare again, and a small crowd of serious Kasich fans mobbed the governor as he left the stage. He grinned and hugged one of them and seemed so happy to be in this lovefest. Yes, the serious Kasich fans are out there, and during the grotesquery of the 2016 election, it’s easy to see some of the doomed candidate’s likable qualities, mainly by way of contrast. But he simply isn’t presidential. He’s vice presidential, at best.
And Kasich has lost. His own constituents say he should drop out and come home to Ohio. Though he may soldier on after Tuesday’s inevitable Trump massacre, Kasich is now only in this to mess with Trump (laudable) and to try to save the party (meh). And he is the party, with more amusing anecdotes. Kasich is America’s Republican dad who has sensible economic advice but wants to bomb the shit out of everybody and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about privacy. He’s the panicking part of the GOP, and the other part–the larger part, after all–is going to be cheering for Trump in July at the convention.