I first saw John Kasich as he was being introduced at a town hall event last month at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The Ohio governor entered the room a bit early, a finger covering his smile, as if cautioning “You didn’t see me. Not yet.” His unspoken gesture could describe his campaign, which has persisted despite relative invisibility. The lack of hype surrounding the Kasich campaign is the cost of doing business these days when you choose to say “things we need to do to fix the country” instead of “wacky things,” as the candidate put it.
But Kasich refuses to change course, insisting that “operating out of the gutter” and engaging in “all this nonsense” is “disgraceful,” despite his low poll numbers. “I’ve been wandering around in total obscurity for five months. I’m serious!” he told us. “Don’t you think that it would be natural for me to lash out against this? It would be natural. But life’s too short to be lashing out, or living in the dark side or living in the ditch somewhere and calling names. I’m not going to be a pin cushion or a marshmallow, trust me. But I want us to be up, not down. I don’t know what else to say.”
Kasich did have more to say about this, expressing amazement that his decision “to live in the boring lane” has brought him this far. “Now, guess what’s so funny… I’ve survived!” he declared. “I’ve had the least amount of money, the least amount of exposure, and I’m standing on this stage. Isn’t that just unbelievable?” This observation earned him loud yet polite applause from the crowd of some 350 attendees.
“Kasich also spoke of America’s greatness, though he sounded more like a professor than a cheerleader.”
For many in the audience, Kasich’s nonabrasive approach is admirable. Indeed, he later edged out Ted Cruz to place a distant second in the New York primary, calling it “a big step forward.” But can Kasich take the boring lane all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue?
I had the opportunity to explore this issue first-hand by contrasting Kasich’s campaign with that of his party’s frontrunner. Two days later, I was one of an estimated 10,000 people at the Donald Trump rally at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, N.Y., standing in the center of a repurposed plane hangar. As a white male, I fit right in. I hoped to make it through the rally without incident as I witnessed people getting nasty and even physical with others who challenged their space (let alone their politics).
At the town hall, Kasich’s unpretentious appearance in grey and blue hues evoked a J.M.W. Turner seascape or cloud study. By contrast, Trump appeared ready for Matisse’s brush, standing stiff with fiery hair and a tie that mimicked the red flow of Betsy Ross’ broad stripes falling behind him.
When Kasich mentioned Obama’s name, it could have been any other word. When Trump referred to the leader of the free world, the crowd erupted with shouts of “Terrorist!” A thunder of boos attacked the image of Megyn Kelly, persona non grata, in a video montage. Before long, someone behind me held up a placard (despite a warning on the ticket against bringing homemade signs) that read “White Lives Matter,” eliciting cheers.
Kasich focused on how exceptional we are as individuals, assuming the mantle of Fred Rogers. “We’re all kind of made that way with certain things about us that make us special. Do you know that? You’re made special. Nobody’s ever been like you and no one will ever be like you again. This is a more important message than anything I will say, no matter what I say here today. You’re made special. You’re made special for a purpose. And that purpose is to live a life bigger than yourself, to do something to heal part of our world. Do you know that? Do you know that? Have you ever thought about that? Yeah, and when you are able to find out what your purpose is, and you’re able to carry that purpose out, that’s when you find satisfaction in life.”
Trump chose to focus on how special the country is, riling up the crowd with “America first! America first!” and his parting promise to “make America great again!” Kasich also spoke of America’s greatness, though he sounded more like a professor than a cheerleader. Invoking de Tocqueville, Kasich cautioned that “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Kasich kept going with his theme of individual empowerment. “What I want to tell you is, I think the president matters, but I don’t think the president matters nearly as much as what happens in your family, your neighborhood, and your community,” he suggested. “See, what I believe is that presidents should give people power. The president should transfer a lot of responsibility back to where we live, and it’s then up to us to take the power and use it to improve our country.” While Kasich strove to deflect his spotlight to his audience, Trump basked in it, absorbing the energy in that hangar like a lightning rod.
Kasich spoke of a desire “to end all the strife, the bitterness, the partisanship, and the divisions, because we have a lot of things we have to do.” Trump gave a dramatic reading of “The Snake,” an Oscar Brown poem that his campaign has coopted as its xenophobic fight song. Trump delighted in delivering the allegory’s climactic told-you-so: “‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin. ‘You damn well knew I was a snake before you took me in!'” Meanwhile, outside people protested and vendors peddled items such as buttons that read: “KFC – Hillary Special – 2 Fat Thighs – 2 Small Breasts… Left Wing.”
As I left Grumman Studios and walked a mile to my car, I paused with others at a train crossing, not expecting the conductor to open the window and call out: “Hey! Ya like Donald Trump?”
The Trump rally was a far different experience than the town hall, where Kasich pointed out, “I’m the only one who beats Hillary in the fall.” That’s a strong, practical argument that would normally attract much support. But in this election season, it’s boring.