For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows:
3rd Place: Governor John Kasich
Ohio Governor, John Kasich, enjoyed a home field advantage in the Cleveland debate, but that didn’t give him cause to coast. Kasich, so far, has been vindicating his ardent supporters, mostly party insiders and Ohioans, by entering the race late and still soaring high enough in the polls to qualify for the main debate. Still, though, he remains a mostly regional phenomenon. People familiar with him, say that Kasich is thoughtful and personable, but he has not always supported conservative stances, and his temper is second only to John McCain’s.
Kasich’s challenges, in my view, were to introduce himself to millions of voters–most of whom had never heard of him–and to stand out on substance in a very substantive field. He performed the first task well, but struggled with the second.
Kasich achieved what politicians like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and John Kerry could not–he appeared human, folksy, likeable and caring. This goes a long way; especially for Republicans, known for our technical arguments more than our emotional intelligence. The 2012 election showed the GOP that winning on the issues does not equal winning the election. Voters want someone who “cares about people like me.” He spent a great deal of his time telling his life story (if you didn’t know that his father was a mailman by the end of the debate, you weren’t paying attention). He also pivoted from a question about expanding Medicaid in Ohio to his record of expanding mental health facilities and growing jobs in Ohio. Kasich’s open demeanor and plain spokenness will serve him well if he ascends to the General Election.
As it happens, to earn the nomination, he must pass the party gatekeepers. In this regard, Kasich struggled in the first debate. For starters, Kasich came off as conservative, but not ideological. In a field in which firebrands like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump enjoy a great deal of popularity, ideology matters. Both, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, declared personal beliefs that abortion should not be permitted in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. Megyn Kelly rightfully pointed out that 85% of Americans disagree with this hard stance, but with Republicans staunchly supporting a more exclusive right to abortion, Kasich should understand that primary voters seek an ideological champion. For better or for worse, the chest-beaters will garner the most attention. Kasich’s moderate tone may exacerbate some less popular positions he has taken with an electorate looking for purists.
To the second point, Governor Kasich failed to stand out on substance. On the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, for example, Chris Wallace asked Kasich what he thought would be an adequate response to the crisis. Kasich meandered, praising Trump and equivocating about everyone having solutions (What are some of yours, sir?). When asked (a silly question) about whether he heard messages from God regarding what priorities a president should tackle first, he waxed distracted: mentioning his father’s occupation (mailman, again, for those who missed it), went on to talk about the divided nation and then ended with “Nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith and my friends.”
While it would be nice to elect a “nice guy” to the White House, that cannot be his only qualification.
Listen to Jason Riley and other conservatives who know Kasich, and they will tell you that he deserves a serious look. He is reportedly substantive, conservative, pragmatic and strong. So far, though, he has yet to demonstrate these qualities on the national stage. Kasich introduced himself well, but has much more work to do if he wants to attract Republican voters interested in policy solutions.