Kasich Won't Say If He'll Run in '20, But He Acts Like It
John Kasich is just trying to sell a book.
This has been the Ohio governor’s refrain, anyway, during a spate of recent media appearances and events to promote “Two Paths” — a made-for-campaign tome if there ever was one, if only Kasich were running for anything.
“There’s not always an ulterior motive to something,” Kasich insisted in an interview during a recent visit to Seattle, where he also spoke at Amazon. “I wrote this book because I’m worried about [the] drift of our country.”
It’s true that Kasich, who ran for president in 2016 and stuck around until the Republican primary’s bitter end, remains a reliable critic of President Trump after refusing to endorse his candidacy. But it is also impossible to ignore that Kasich will finish his final term as governor in January 2019. And then what?
A long-shot challenge to Trump in 2020 is not out of the question.
“Do I think John Kasich would primary Donald Trump? Absolutely. John Kasich would do that,” said one Republican strategist who has worked with the governor.
Tellingly, Kasich himself has not ruled out another bid for president, although his book tour has presented ample opportunity to do so. On the contrary, his media blitz has on occasion showcased Kasich surveying the contours of another campaign.
In a discussion with President Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod at the University of Chicago, Kasich considered the question of running for the Oval Office as third-party candidate — an almost impossible climb, he suggested, except “for someone who is very wealthy ... if they have the skill to know how to communicate.”
“If they’re very wealthy,” Axelrod parried. “How’s your book selling?”
“Not well enough,” Kasich said to laughter from the audience. The 1992 Independent candidate Ross Perot, Kasich went on, “was getting up there, but he didn’t know what he was doing.” But someone like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Kasich mused, could really have a shot.
The barriers to running as an Independent might begin to explain why, in his public appearances, Kasich continues to measure himself against Trump and the president’s brand of Republicanism. Kasich says he and Trump share a populist outlook — but Kasich casts himself as a “positive populist” relative to Trump, “a negative populist.” Of the “two paths” in Kasich’s book title, Trump’s represents a “path to darkness,” while Kasich’s is “a better, higher path.”
The former congressman has insisted he would prefer to see Trump succeed in office. "It's sort of like being on an airplane,” the governor likes to say. “You want to root for the pilot.”
It was in that spirit, perhaps, that he met with Trump at the White House in February to discuss policy — although the powwow might now be best remembered for sparking a he said/she said tiff between Kasich’s and Trump’s advisers over who invited whom.
Since then, Kasich has notably distanced himself from the president’s early entrees into policymaking. The two-term governor logged his opposition to the president’s health-care reform plan developed in conjunction with congressional Republican leaders, citing proposed Medicaid cuts.
Kasich has also sought to establish an anti-Trump identity on foreign policy, even though these issues are not within the scope of a governor’s role. In February, Kasich attended the Munich Security Conference and conducted a live interview with CNN from there, warning about diminished American influence abroad and the administration’s mixed signals to allies.
More recently, Kasich weighed in on escalating tensions with North Korea, agreeing with the administration’s view “that all options need to be on the table.” But Kasich went one step further, writing in a Time magazine op-ed, “I strongly believe this should include a regime change and the removal of Kim Jong-un and his immediate Pyongyang inner circle.”
Kasich’s book tour has not exactly resembled a Republican presidential primary swing. With the exception of a stop in New Hampshire, where Kasich placed a distant second to Trump last year, he has limited his travels to major cities, like Washington, D.C., and college campuses, including Harvard. An appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” likewise would not have targeted a heavily Republican audience.
But Kasich’s campaign committee, still active since the 2016 election, has sought to raise money off of his book and the events surrounding its release, with campaign-style fundraising emails to supporters. “The dollars we raise go directly into helping tell not only the story about the work [Kasich] is doing to strengthen Ohio, but also provide a hopeful and more inclusive path forward for our country,” read one such email sent out Thursday. The committee reported no debt as of the end of 2016.
Kasich’s maneuvering has not gone unnoticed in professional Republican circles.
“I guarantee you, there is someone in the administration thinking about an ambassadorship for that guy,” said a GOP strategist who worked on a rival 2016 presidential campaign.
If Republicans aren’t shocked that Kasich would potentially primary a sitting president, it might have something to do with the reputation he earned in his first presidential campaign. As the party establishment scrambled to prevent Trump from clinching the nomination, many believed Kasich worked against those interests by staying in the race when he had no chance of winning, siphoning off votes from more viable candidates in the process.
A primary challenge to a sitting president would be a comparably gutsy (or crazy) gambit, but one with modern precedents.
In 1992, Pat Buchanan humbled President George H.W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, where the president managed a lackluster victory for an incumbent. At the time, Bush’s approval ratings were comparable to Trump’s now, hovering around the mid- to low-40s.
Another unpopular president, Jimmy Carter, faced a competitive primary challenge in 1980 from Ted Kennedy. At the time, a letter to the editor that ran in The New York Times disabused the notion “that it is somehow bad form to challenge an incumbent President for renomination. …”
“No other aspect of rough‐and-tumble American politics calls for such genteel protocol — and this one shouldn't either,” the unsigned letter read. “The idea has been less a rule than a reflection of reality: incumbent Presidents are generally strong enough that taking them on is not so much improper as unwise.”
But both Buchanan’s and Kennedy’s insurgent bids were ultimately undermined by their own weaknesses as candidates. In Kennedy’s case, considerable damage was done on the eve of his campaign launch when CBS News reporter Roger Mudd asked an anodyne question in an interview: “Why do you want to be president?”
Kennedy’s rambling answer revealed that he fundamentally did not have one.
For Kasich, the desire to be president is a question that has already been asked and answered. But his book and the tour to promote it have enabled him to go even further, laying out a fresh rationale to challenge Trump in particular.
“Every book stop he makes, at least a couple of people bring it up,” one Kasich adviser said of a potential campaign redux. And, with the next presidential election three years away, the adviser added, there is “no reason to close the door” on anything.
At an event Friday at a bookstore in Northwest Washington, D.C., one young woman who identified herself as a Democrat asked Kasich if he would consider running for president again in 2020.
“I’m going to give you my wife’s phone number,” Kasich said, to laughs. “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. The only thing I know is, my future’s ahead of me.”
The governor tossed in a few requisite platitudes about looking “at what I feel called to do,” and a self-deprecating line about having only received support last time from Democrats and foreigners. But Kasich would not close the door on another campaign, or even feign disinterest.
“I’m not going to go away,” Kasich added. “OK?”