Kasich's choice: Fight for the party, or leave it behind?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

If there’s one thing we learned from Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, it’s that Americans are so disgusted by the predictable artifice of politics that you can say almost anything and still win a lot of votes, as long as you don’t sound like you’re reading from the same old meaningless talking points.

So naturally a bunch of the Democratic contenders for 2020 who just marched out to declare themselves to the electorate seem determined to sound as much like every other candidate of the last 25 years as humanly possible. Brilliant plan.

Julián Castro: “We have always been at our best when we’re united by something bigger.”

Kamala Harris: “The American public wants a fighter.”

Kirsten Gillibrand: “I believe that what people want in our state and around the country is someone who will fight for them and someone who not only understands what their problems actually are, but then will do what it takes to solve that problem.”

(She also accused Trump of “literally ripping apart the fabric of this country,” which, you know, literally can’t be, unless we’ve now entered “A Wrinkle in Time.”)

I can’t tell you which of the many Democrats running will emerge to challenge Trump, but it won’t be the one who sounds generated by a word algorithm.

What’s less predictable right now, though, and maybe more interesting, is what’s happening in Trump’s own party as 2020 comes into view.

A lot of Republicans have considered Trump an unstoppable force in the conservative grassroots — and at least a viable candidate for reelection. But recent events, mainly centered on the economy, have added some uncertainty to that.

Turmoil in the markets at the end of last year, followed by the longest government shutdown in history, have some global experts predicting a painful slowdown in 2019. Polls show rising disenchantment with Trump, even among pockets of his white, working-class base.

And among the Republican establishment now in exile or trying to ride out the moment, there remains a lot of resistance to key tenets of the Trump agenda, most notably his pro-Russia tilt and his ongoing trade war. (And, of course, his Gollum-like obsession with The Wall.)

This week the Republican National Committee, meeting near Albuquerque, is apparently set to pass a nonbinding resolution supporting the president in the 2020 primaries. That’s not something you do when you’re feel like everything’s going just fine.

I’ve said before that I think Trump is vulnerable to a challenge from someone in his own party. And while there may be multiple Republicans considering that right now (we’ve heard speculation about Jeff Flake and Nikki Haley and, most recently, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan), the most likely challenger remains John Kasich, the just-departed Ohio governor who lasted deep into the 2016 primaries, despite winning only his home state.

When I caught up with Kasich in Columbus a few weeks ago now, at his last public event as governor, he was in no mood for a long discussion about a future campaign. He was busy reflecting on his frenetic and creative eight years in office, and showing me how his new, shiny white Tesla would drive itself when summoned. (“I’m driving the future here, Matt!”)

But Kasich didn’t sound like a guy who was backing down from another fight. During his last speech in office, at a ceremony to name an arena at the state fairgrounds in his honor, he went out of his way to have fun at the president’s expense. “It was huge!” Kasich said, referring to the crowd at the fair. “Bigger than any crowd in history!”

Later, he ticked off for me a sharp critique of the Trumpian agenda, comparing it to where Democrats are on the issues.

“They’re worried about the environment — we deny it,” Kasich said. “They’re worried about income inequality — we don’t care. They want Medicare for everybody, which would bankrupt the system — our view is to take health care away from 20 million people.

“Where are the free-market, center-right, exciting ideas about a new world? They don’t exist in the Republican Party.”

The basic question facing Kasich right now, if he does decide to make another run against Trump, is binary, but not at all simple. Do you try to take out the incumbent president in the primaries and win back the party, or do you make an independent bid instead?

I could certainly make the case for a primary campaign. As I’ve said, the No. 1 reason Trump prevailed in 2016 wasn’t his talk-show celebrity or his neo-nativist appeal (though all of that contributed), but because the more serious-minded field was divided a dozen different ways.

The math works very differently when it’s mano a mano from the start, especially if Trump is carrying the weight of an uncertain economy.

As we often say in politics, campaigns are choices, not referendums. Republican voters may give Trump high approval ratings compared to Democrats or (worse yet) the media, but we have no idea how they’d respond to a sustained debate between Trump and a more traditional conservative.

And you only have to beat Trump in independent-heavy New Hampshire or in another early state, where losing his invincibility as an incumbent would recast the entire race. Think back to 1968, when Gene McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire emboldened Robert Kennedy and persuaded Lyndon Johnson to step aside.

But let’s be real: The primary route is a tough one. The last time any major elected figure tried something like this was 1980, when Ted Kennedy tried to wrest the Democratic Party from Jimmy Carter. (My colleague Jon Ward just wrote a terrific book about this, called “Camelot’s End,” which reminds you what complex and flawed figures both men were at the time.)

The lesson both parties took from that fiasco was that launching an internal bid to unseat a president usually ends up destroying the party. Which is why few Republican donors or activists are lining up to help Kasich launch what could be a kamikaze mission this time.

And while a Republican renegade might get a hearing, it’s not clear that Kasich is the right kind of renegade. Kasich carries on passionately about leaving no one in the society behind and about the value of compassionate Christianity; he believes in the looming crisis of climate change and in global alliances.

All of which might make him … not really a Republican anymore.

Which leads us to door No. 2: an independent campaign. Running as a third candidate, maybe on a bipartisan ticket, is one of those crazy things that only losers think about, right? I say “independent” and you think “spoiler.” Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, that guy who once ran who led a community of yogic fliers. (It happened. I’m not making this up.)

Except that while you were laughing, the world completely changed. The major obstacles that always stood in the way of independent campaigns — money and ballot access — are now eminently surmountable, thanks to the internet and super-PACs.

And the advantage to an independent campaign is that you don’t have to spend all this time catering to the craziness of dwindling primary electorates. You can enter late, when a lot of voters may already be soured by all the partisan nastiness between the other two candidates, and speak to the broad center of the electorate that often feels caught between impossible choices. (See 2016, for instance.)

I’ve argued that America will get an independent presidency sooner rather than later; decades from now, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump will be seen as transitional figures from the long age of parties to the era of personalities. Should Republicans renominate Trump and Democrats choose a more strident candidate of their own, 2020 could be the perfect moment for that evolution.

And yet … there are drawbacks here, too. What if an older, sometimes garbled Midwestern governor who speaks of consensus isn’t the right personality to incite that kind of uprising? What if Democrats end up nominating a Joe Biden, who might be perfectly acceptable to anti-Trump centrists?

A lot of people still believe that a third candidate from one party can do little more, mathematically, than throw the election to the other, which is why Michael Bloomberg stood down from an independent run in 2016.

So with all that in mind, if you’re Kasich or some other serious Republican who’s had enough, which way do you go at Trump? Which adventure here gives you the best chance of success?

I’m really not sure, but I think it may depend on how you’re defining success. If you’re inherently a party guy, and you still believe that Reagan’s Republican Party exists and hasn’t been permanently overrun by the forces of Trumpism, then it’s probably worth a primary fight.

Another four years of Trump, and whatever happens to the country, I can promise you, the Republican Party we grew up with will be a curiosity of history.

But if your goal is to actually win the White House, party be damned, then I’d say an independent campaign is the wave of the future, and more likely to get you there.

Sure, the conventional wisdom says it’s quixotic, but in a society barely 20 years into a massive technological and cultural transformation, a lot of 20th century conventions — political parties included — are fast losing their relevance. That’s another lesson we should have taken away from Trump’s ascendance.

And this one is literally true.

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