John Kasich’s bid to redefine GOP conservatism

At the end of a long Tuesday, John Kasich was damp, tired and hungry.

The Ohio governor still had a rainy drive to South Carolina ahead of him, yet one more reporter with one last question stood in his way.

In a nine-hour span, the GOP presidential possibility had introduced himself to three crowds of Georgia Republicans. At a luncheon in Sandy Springs, Kasich spoke of his party’s need for “more compassion” and unabashedly defended Ohio’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.

“When a chunk of our population thinks that the system not only doesn’t work for them, but against them — as Americans, we’ve got to listen. And we’ve got to act,” said Kasich, sounding something like Jack Kemp, the late pro-quarterback turned supply-side congressman.

At a private meeting with two dozen or so potential supporters and contributors, we’ll just assume that the Ohio governor underlined his executive credentials, and perhaps the 26 percent of the African-Americans in Ohio who supported his 2014 re-election bid.

“He’s got the bluntness and straight talk about him, without the [Chris] Christie edge. It’s a Midwestern attitude rather than a Northeastern one,” said John Watson, who put that downtown meeting together. Watson was a co-chair of David Perdue’s successful U.S. Senate campaign last year – another maverick enterprise.

Finally, in a crowded barn near Monroe, Ga., over the din of a squall peppering the tin roof, Kasich spoke of his cheeky White House encounter, as an 18-year-old college freshman, with Richard Nixon. Of rubbing shoulders with Ronald Reagan when no one else would. Of balancing the federal budget in 1997, when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee.

And of his refusal to tear down other candidates, including Hillary Clinton. “There’s plenty of time for that,” Kasich said.

Kasich left his Walton County crowd with this final word: “Remember: Ohio is a microcosm. When I talk to you all about unity, bringing people together, ending the polarization – if we do not do that, we will not win Ohio.”

This was a knowledgeable crowd. Kasich didn’t have to tell his audience that no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio.

So the last question posed to the slightly moist, 62-year-old governor, as he prepared to decamp for South Carolina, was the obvious one: “Are you a reminder of what Republican conservatism used to be, or an example of what Republican conservatism should become?”

It was no surprise that Kasich chose Door No. 2. “I don’t operate in the past. I’m trying, in some ways, to redefine what it means to be a conservative,” he said.

“I think that sometimes our party gets trapped, in being afraid to emote and to tell people that we care about them, we think about them, we want to help them. That’s part of being a conservative – to help lift people,” Kasich said.

In other words, the governor of Ohio has opened a door that might allow Republicans to escape their demographic box in 2016. But whether they walk through it, in Georgia or elsewhere, is no sure thing. The established paths are tempting.

On the same day Kasich strolled through Georgia, the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network posted an interview with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another GOP contender, that dangled red meat for social conservatives.

“We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech,” Rubio said. “Because today we’ve reached the point in our society where, if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater.”

When pressed, Kasich told an Atlanta TV reporter that his state had no reason to engage in a debate over religious liberty. In public, this may have been the Ohio governor’s most concise statement on family values:

“I’m more into the ‘do’s’ than I am the ‘don’ts.’ When I get the ‘do’s’ right, then I’m going to start thinking about the ‘don’ts,’ Kasich said. “And the ‘do’s’ are to love people that don’t like me, to be generous, to be humble, to be contrite.”

In GOP presidential politics, we’ve been a backwater, a status that implies stagnant waters – and recycled ideas. If nothing else, Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s effort at raising the profile of Georgia’s March 1 primary has already resulted in some fresh thinking about what it means to be Republican.

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