Why John Kasich Should Run as an Independent in 2020

Why John Kasich Should Run as an Independent in 2020
AP Photo/Paul Vernon
Why John Kasich Should Run as an Independent in 2020
AP Photo/Paul Vernon
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The reform movement fueled by political centrists is getting stronger all over the country, but it needs a heavyweight 2020 Independent presidential candidate to gain national traction and big-time financial backing. Ohio Gov. John Kasich ought to take up that challenge.

He can’t get the nomination of his own party. Although he’s a lifelong Republican who won statewide in a key battleground state the GOP needs to win the presidency, he’s become much too moderate, not to mention high-principled and independent, for the party. But he could be the strongest, best-financed and most compelling third-force presidential candidate in decades.

The nation clearly needs a high-energy, optimistic spokesman for citizens in despair over the vicious, hyper-polarization into which the Democratic and Republican parties have plunged us. A 2017 Pew poll showed that only 34 percent of Americans are satisfied with the two parties, while 61 percent would like to see a third choice.

Voters have every right to be dissatisfied, as the red-blue “duopoly” continues to serve itself and its special-interest donors, at the expense of the American public.

Kasich, finishing up two successful terms as governor of the nation’s seventh-largest state, is traveling often and appearing on TV talk shows nearly every week, raising his national profile and preaching a gospel of unity, problem-solving and serving others above self.

He tells all interviewers, including me, that he can’t predict what he’s going to do in 2020 and is keeping all options open. I believe him.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, he said that he is still a Republican and is determined to “bring the party back” to its longtime time principles -- “pro-immigrant, pro-trade, pro-growth, worried about debt.”

He also told me, “I’m not a moderate. I’m a conservative.”

But whether he acknowledges it or not, he has much more in common, in both tone and substance, with Independent, centrist and reformist groups like Unite America , No Labels, Issue One, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Bridge Alliance, and Represent.us than with the GOP.

These national organizations and nearly 100 kindred groups operating in every state and dozens of localities are working to empower what Kasich refers to as “the great middle.” But this working plurality of Americans is forced in every election — by design -- to choose between a right-wing/populist Republican candidate and ever-more-left-wing Democrats.

(A list of state and local initiatives can be found here and developments across the centrist reform movement can be tracked here.)

As Kasich said last Sunday, “You have a department store that’s red and a department store that’s blue, and neither of them are providing products for the great middle. You know what happens: Another store opens up in the neighborhood.

He’s also said,  “I don't think either party is answering people's deepest concerns and needs. We may be beginning to see the end of a two-party system. I'm starting to really wonder if we are going to see a multi-party system at some point in the future in this country."

The big idea of “Country Over Party” is advanced explicitly by No Labels, Unite America, and the Bridge Alliance and in spirit by other reformers. It’s also the leading slogan on the official Kasich for America website.

While he wants to keep the option open, realistically Kasich is all but dead in the Republican Party. He refused to endorse Donald Trump in 2016 and didn’t attend the GOP convention in his home state.

During Trump’s presidency, Kasich has also criticized many of his policies and statements. Trump has blasted him back.  That’s a big 2020 problem for Kasich — if he’s still thinking of running as a Republican. More than 80 percent of Republicans consistently support Trump, and a recent Ohio poll showed that although Kasich beat Trump in the Buckeye State in 2016, Trump would clobber Kasich in a primary held there now.

It’s possible Trump might not run in 2020 for one reason or another, but even in that case, Kasich is out of step with his party. He was one of only 11 GOP governors (out of 30) to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act and he’s defended Obamacare against Trump and the GOP’s Congress’s efforts to undermine it without replacing it with something better.

He’s also criticized the single achievement of that Congress — tax reform — for exploding the deficit by failing to include spending cuts. He’s declared Congress "totally dysfunctional" for failing to pass “common-sense” gun control legislation or protect young people brought to this country illegally and previously covered by President Obama’s DACA program. And he also says  that members of Congress “should be held absolutely accountable” in the next elections for their failures.

Kasich told me, “Republicans are angry with me now, but maybe tomorrow they will follow me.” It’s far more probable that if they stopped following Trump they’d follow someone loyal to the party. Whether he knows it or not, Kasich is considered an apostate.

He’s said he’s “unlikely” to run as an Independent, but hasn’t ruled it out, and his chief political strategist, John Weaver, told me there’d be space for a successful third candidate if Democrats nominated a Bernie Sanders-style left-winger and Republicans stick with an unpopular Trump.

Weaver said up to 25 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats might be open to voting for an Independent. Leading potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates do seem to be adopting Sanders’s agenda. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon all support a single-payer health care system.

Lately, they have lined up behind Sanders’s proposal for the federal government to guarantee everyone a job. Both ideas — along with other Democratic favorites such as free college, higher teacher salaries, and expanded early childhood education -- would be enormously expensive and require significant tax increases or huge increases in the national debt, or both.

Kasich told me he considers himself “a positive populist” and if he’s a conservative, he’s definitely of the compassionate type.

Arguing for Medicaid expansion, he’s given a variation of this explanation for five years: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

He’s also for criminal justice and incarceration reform, better workforce education, an end to gerrymandering, and balanced budgets. His biggest goal, he told me, is to combat the “post-truth” environment that’s taken hold in America and “separate those who are extreme in their views and not open to facts and figures, as opposed to those who are objective, rational and fact-based.” He said he thinks most Americans fall into the second category.

Here’s how different he is from the generic politician: In his final State of the State address in March, after reviewing Ohio’s record of achievement under his tenure -- closing an $8 billion budget deficit, creating 500,000 jobs, and lowering the rate of opioid deaths — he then cited 10 different philosophers to divine the values that should govern public and private life, which he described as love, compassion, humility, forgiveness, responsibility, and justice.

Formidable challenges obviously would face Kasich if he ran as an Independent. These include the long history of failed third-force bids, and lack of a party organizing base.

Then there’s money. Although Weaver, his political guru, believes funding is doable, the numbers are daunting: Weaver himself estimates it would cost $100 million to $150 million simply to get Kasich’s name onto 50 state ballots.

The cost of campaigning itself is in a whole other realm. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the super PACs  supporting her spent nearly $1.2 billion on the general election. Trump’s side spent another $647 million. The Democratic Party and Clinton’s joint DNC campaign committee spent $850 million more, and the Republican Party and the Trump-RNC committee, $580 million.

Kasich and his committees spent just $45 million during his GOP primary run. Kasich for America, his official fundraising group, has raised a mere $290,000 during the 2018 election cycle. There’s a big gap there, but Weaver told me he thinks “there are a lot of rich CEOs who are fed up” with the current state of politics. Kasich just met with one of them, billionaire investor Ron Burkle, who usually supports Democrats.

Win or lose, it would serve the country if Kasich mounted a campaign aimed at “the great middle.” It would help, too if Kasich enlisted fed-up CEOs to support the centrist reform movement, which so far they have not done in any major way. And he could help the movement gain traction: It needs the impetus a serious presidential contender could provide. So far, Issue One has been unable even to get a congressional hearing for an Honest Elections Act, backed by both Facebook and Twitter, which would require the same sponsor disclosure on Internet political ads as currently run with TV and print ads.

The No Labels-originated bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus has proposed a House rules change requiring a 60 percent (that is, bipartisan) majority to elect the next speaker.  It’s going nowhere. Unite America is aiding Independents running for governor in Alaska, Kansas and Maine and for the U.S. Senate in Missouri and Maryland, and state legislative candidates in Colorado and Washington. Represent.us is backing anti-corruption initiatives in South Dakota and Alaska and anti-gerrymandering measures in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Utah and Colorado.

Most Americans probably aren’t aware of all this action going on in the center of American politics.  A strong Independent running for president would establish in everyone’s mind that “the great middle” is moving. “Country Over Party.”

Morton Kondracke is the retired executive editor of Roll Call, a former "McLaughlin Group" and Fox News commentator and co-author, with Fred Barnes, of “Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America.”

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