John Quixote: Live from Villanova’s Kasich Town Hall

Villanova University, Noon, March 16, 2016

It was a full house at Villanova’s student union as about four hundred students, professors, locals, and journalists packed in for a glimpse of Ohio governor and persistent presidential candidate John Kasich. The crowd seemed to be on a high from Kasich’s victory in Ohio the night before. Although Kasich came in second during the Vermont primary, Ohio is Kasich’s first primary win.

Kasich has done better than expected in this election cycle, according to the punditry-at-large, but I suspected early on that Kasich — or at least someone filling his “Mr. Nice Guy” niche — would be one of the last candidates standing. He’s playing the long game, hoping against hope that a conservative who talks like a calm moderate can overcome the Trump nationalists. Perhaps Kasich will parlay Ohio’s momentum into a few more primary wins, but at this point his best chance is a brokered convention, where he can cut a deal to be a unifying nominee. A convention floor fight in itself would be historic, as Thomas Dewey in 1948 was the last Republican to be picked in a brokered convention. No matter what, Gov. Kasich is staring at a long and ugly fight with Donald Trump (and Ted Cruz), so it’s to Kasich’s credit that he struck as positive a tone as he did in his Ohio victory speech.

One cannot help but regard Kasich’s campaign at this point as quixotic. True, he has lasted this long. True, he won the “President-maker” state of Ohio. And the man cultivates an affable public persona. He opened his Villanova remarks with a funny story about how, as an OSU freshman, he conned his way into a trip to the White House. Yet the fact remains that the Trump juggernaut has accumulated more primary wins than anyone expected. Trump is starting to wrack up big endorsements. The delegate math is against Kasich. As such, the governor is betting his campaign on a potential convention fight that’s four months away. This is the definition of tilting at windmills. Still, whoever said politics is a rational-choice endeavor was mistaken. A presidential candidate’s ego is a hard thing to silence. Kasich will keep plugging away, hoping to succeed where would-be consensus candidates like Bush and Rubio failed.

The Kasich’s campaign’s fighting spirit was on display at Villanova. The pre-event playlist was upbeat; none of the songs, from Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” constituted a funeral dirge. The campaign staffers were cheerful, even handing out their business cards (although that could be an ominous sign about the campaign’s near-future…). When Kasich arrived, he seemed relaxed and comfortable speaking to a room filled primarily with students. The man did not exude defeatism.

What of Kasich’s remarks? He stuck closely to his polished, optimistic shtick about hardworking blue-collar folks and the benefits of local common sense instead of government regulations. Channeling John McCain’s old “maverick” persona, Kasich highlighted his support for some social welfare programs, as well as his belief in expanded mental health care. Kasich is a smooth talker. In a traditional election year, he could have earned more primary victories by now.

2016, however, is no ordinary election year. Kasich’s sunny stump speech is the antithesis of the populist anger that Trump and Cruz have cultivated. Take the discussion of Christian values that came early in Kasich’s Villanova remarks. There is nothing wrong with Kasich’s belief that everyone is special, made uniquely by God. Indeed, the governor sounded like Rick Warren or (surprisingly) Mr. Rogers, and the Catholic surroundings of Villanova probably affected Kasich’s rhetoric. Unfortunately, Kasich’s ten-minute discussion of God’s plan for all of us felt like a children’s lesson from 1950s Sunday school, and not a response to the ideological civil war that’s currently devouring the Republican Party. The governor is harkening back to old-fashioned values in the middle of an Internet-driven election — an age when Trump’s manipulation of modern media is fueling his rise. As such, I do not see how Kasich’s spiritual revival tour can overcome the Twitter rants of Trump or stifle the nativist anger that many of Trump’s supporters express. I feel bad for Kasich, to be honest. He is an ideal conservative candidate from forty years ago.

John Kasich found his vindication, no matter how slight, in his Ohio victory. He’s not dropping out — yet. Bring on the windmills.

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