A bid for 'politics of the heart' in the Trump era

John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio and 2016 presidential candidate, is promoting a more compassionate brand of conservatism through his new book, 'Two Paths: America Divided or United.'

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel on April 28, 2017, in Washington.

It was a signature moment in John Kasich’s 2016 campaign.

At an event in South Carolina, a young man stood up and spoke of a series of personal tragedies, his voice wavering. He was in “a really dark place,” he said, but had found hope in the Lord, his friends, and “my presidential candidate,” Governor Kasich of Ohio.

Kasich walked over and gave the man a hug.

A year later, Donald Trump is president, and Kasich is still a governor. But the Republican hasn’t given up promoting his vision for the country, which he calls “the politics of the heart.” It is the focus of his new book, “Two Paths: America Divided or United.”

One path, Kasich says, turns fear into hatred, and divides people. The other, “higher” path turns fear into hope as people take strength from one another.

“If you’re living in the shadows, if you’re weak, if you’re powerless, we run over you, because you don’t have any political clout. And that’s just wrong,” Kasich said at a recent breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I think that in our country, everybody has to have a sense that they have a shot, they have a chance, and that they have an opportunity.”

Kasich & Trump's contrasting approaches

Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid for low-income Ohioans under the Affordable Care Act exemplifies this approach. On Thursday, he took to Twitter and slammed the health-care bill passed by House Republicans as “woefully short” on the resources needed to help the most vulnerable citizens. 

In a way, President Trump and Kasich offered different approaches to the same phenomenon – a sense of powerlessness by “the little guy” in a changing nation and world.

Trump won by twinning his outsize, outsider persona with the rhetoric of populism and nationalism. Kasich, a two-term governor and former nine-term congressman, deployed the quieter rhetoric of a more mainstream, moderate conservatism, and fell short.

But Kasich is still part of the national conversation, and is showing certain tell-tale signs: the book, the media tour, the online fundraising. Once out of office, at the end of next year, he intends to maintain his political organization and speak out on issues.

At the Monitor breakfast, Kasich insists another presidential campaign is unlikely. “I mean, my wife would kill me if she ever –” Kasich interrupts himself and waves to an invisible Karen Kasich. “I’m not, sweetie!” he calls out. “That’s not why I’m here!”

More fundamentally, though, lies a deeper question: Is there a market for Kasich’s “politics of the heart”? Trump’s job approval ratings are at historic lows for this stage of a presidency, but most Republicans are still with him – including the white working-class voters who handed him bellwether Ohio.

In fact, Kasich’s power may be in his ability to garner attention as the successful governor of the seventh-largest state. At a time when faith in government is low, Kasich stands out with a 59 percent job approval rating in Ohio.

“If Kasich’s success in Ohio is any indication, there may be a good-sized appetite” for his brand more broadly, says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and a dean at the University of Akron.

Bill Vasu, a technology CEO in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is a Democrat, but says that it would have been a tough call for him to decide how to vote if it had been Kasich vs. Hillary Clinton.

“I could sense how much the campaign had taken the edge off his right-wing tendencies, and made him a lot more understanding of the people and their needs,” says Mr. Vasu.

Just to be clear: Kasich is still a Republican – “I haven’t given up on my party,” he insists – but his party has changed. It has embraced Trump, more or less. Kasich wants to change the party again, and move the nation beyond the hyper-partisanship that has gripped its politics.

'A crisis of belonging'

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a version of it. In 1988, George H. W. Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation” on his way to the presidency. In 2000, his son George W. Bush campaigned successfully as a “compassionate conservative.”

Mr. Green sees Kasich’s “politics of the heart” as a bit different. The Bush family’s sense of compassion came from a place of “noblesse oblige,” in which “the well-to-do have certain responsibilities, because of their privileged position,” he says.

“Kasich is still a working-class kid from McKees Rock, Pa., and to him it’s all about opportunity and compassion,” Green adds. “It’s not that the more fortunate have a special obligation. It’s that everyone has an obligation to enhance opportunity, but also to take care of the needy.”

At the Monitor breakfast, with reporters from two dozen national news outlets at the table, Kasich is asked what he means by “the politics of the heart."

“I think it’s about really loving our kids and getting out of our comfort zone to educate them,” he said. “I think it’s writing a health-care bill that keeps in mind the people who are drug-addicted and mentally ill.” Or when a problem arises with community and police, a diverse group addresses the issues and considers everyone’s concerns – including those of the police.

“I do think Kasich is right that we’re experiencing a crisis of belonging,” says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington and author of “The End of White Christian America.” “It’s just that the two parties have so far put together two mutually exclusive visions of what that looks like.”

Kasich doesn't fit comfortably in either camp. But to be clear, he's no big-spending liberal. He believes lower taxes and less regulation can help grow the economy, and produce the resources needed to help the less fortunate. After he leaves the governor’s office, he will push for a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution.

An imperfect messenger

Kasich is complicated – a man of deep faith who can be prickly. And he may be an imperfect messenger for his politics of the heart.

“I’m a flawed guy, sometimes I don’t spend enough time with people, sometimes I’m short,” he says. “But I don’t want to be that way … and when people point it out, I’ll turn around and try to do something to fix it.”

Of course, it’s too soon to be talking 2020 in a serious way, though Trump himself has already registered for reelection. Taking on the sitting president of one’s own party can be a fool’s errand. The bottom would have to fall out of Trump’s support among Republicans for any serious Republican candidate to consider getting in.

Kasich says he wants Trump to succeed. “It’s sort of like being on an airplane; you want to root for the pilot,” the governor told reporters after an Oval Office meeting in February.

Then there’s the question of whether loyal Republicans would even consider Kasich, who wrote in John McCain for president.

John Altes, a student at the University of Michigan, likes Kasich’s experience and approves of Medicaid expansion. He supported Kasich in the primaries last year, but now feels “he’s sort of motivated by vanity.” He points to Kasich’s recent visit to New Hampshire, home of the first primary.

Other Republicans point negatively to Kasich’s decision to boycott the Republican National Convention last summer in Cleveland. Instead, he held a separate, campaign-like event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But Kasich tells the Monitor he has no regrets about not welcoming the delegates to his home state.

“I wasn’t going to go to a party where I wasn’t going to behave or say something good,” he says. “I didn’t agree with the tone or what I heard, so why would I go? I know people were going to be mad at me, and they’re still mad at me. But that’s life.”

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