Ohio Gov. John Kasich has a message for the haters who have spent the past year or so sniping that he is insufficiently conservative: Bring it. “It’s really odd,” Kasich tells me in early February, when I spend a few days trailing him around the state. “I was talking to Michael Novak today, who’s a brilliant writer, philosopher. I don’t know if you know who he is. He’s a Catholic theologian. He has received a Templeton Prize. Lady Thatcher flew to London to see him get this award.” (Kasich is not the most linear conversationalist.) “And I was saying how amusing it is to me that the conservative movement — a big chunk of which is faith-based — seems to have never read Matthew 25.”
For those in need of a New Testament refresher: In Matthew 25, Jesus admonishes his followers to aid the less fortunate. Kasich has cited the passage repeatedly of late in defending his Obamacare-fueled Medicaid expansion — an act of Republican apostasy that prompted widespread dismay among his party brethren.
“I just talked to Natan Sharansky the other day,” the governor continues, in what is shaping up to be one of his trademark rants: emotional, self-important, littered with shameless name-dropping. “You know, he was a prisoner of conscience. Wrote one of the greatest books I’ve ever read: Fear No Evil.” Kasich stops abruptly and leans his chair toward me as he erupts with both delight and disbelief at his intellectual hobnobbing. “I actually do this! I am not making this up! This is actually true!”
His veracity proclaimed, he gets back on track. “The point of this is that, with this whole spiritual element, let’s get away from the judgment side of it. I think it’s actually what the Pope’s trying to do. The Pope’s not saying, ‘Let’s just abandon everything up until now.’ He’s saying, ‘But wait a minute! Before we get to the rules, let’s look at the good stuff. Let’s have the dessert first!’ Look, there’s so much we have to do to clean ourselves up. Me: deeply flawed! There’s so much that we have to do. So instead of getting into the judgment, why don’t we get into the feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and helping the imprisoned and helping the lonely? That’s what we’re commanded to do. So when people look askance at me, I feel sorry for them that they haven’t had this. To me, this is a gift that I’ve been able to feel this way. More as time has gone on. But I’m not angry at anybody. I just wish they could see what I’m saying.”
By and large, Kasich remains the deeply conservative politician he has always been: the government-slashing deficit obsessive who drove Democrats bonkers as chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s. “He was Paul Ryan before Paul Ryan,” praises antitax crusader Grover Norquist. As Ohio’s chief executive, Kasich has eliminated the estate tax, cut income-tax rates, tightened food-stamp requirements, cut school funding, and championed business deregulation. He signed into law new restrictions on both abortion rights and voting rights, and, during his first year in office, launched a (failed) crusade to geld public-sector unions — similar to the one that Scott Walker led in Wisconsin. Three months ago, Kasich set his sights beyond Ohio, embarking on a national tour lobbying state lawmakers to call a constitutional convention aimed at ratifying a balanced-budget amendment.
In so many ways, then, Kasich is the stuff of conservative dreams. But the governor is also prone to jabbing his finger in the eye of his base with moves like raising infrastructure spending, increasing tax breaks for low-income residents, championing a fracking tax on oil and gas producers, pushing to hike cigarette taxes, making education funding more redistributive, increasing spending on mental-health care, mandating insurance coverage for autism, or commuting death sentences. And of course there’s the granddaddy of betrayals: Medicaid expansion, which Kasich rammed through over opposition from Ohio’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
This tendency toward contrarianism is not entirely new. Now and again, during his stint in Congress, Kasich would veer away from the Republican line. But as governor, Kasich has kicked things up a notch when it comes to criticizing his own team — which he credits to the difference between legislative and executive power. Even as budget chairman, he says, people were forever telling him what he could not do. “But being governor, I’m now in a position where” — he starts laughing — “I say no to other people. They don’t really say no to me! And it’s really given me a platform to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Kasich seems to relish his role as internal critic and provocateur. Even as he touts the GOP line on the glories of fiscal restraint and personal responsibility, he sprinkles in talk about our communal responsibility to the forgotten and disenfranchised. “I think there is among both parties — both parties — a growing antipathy towards poor people,” he informs me. “One party believes in investing in bureaucracy, and the other one kind of doesn’t get it sometimes.” Kasich delivered a version of this message in his January inaugural address, calling out Republicans for failing to grasp that “economic growth is not an end unto itself. Economic growth provides the means whereby we can reach out and help those who live in the shadows.”
He specifically delights in gigging members of his own side for taking positions he regards as unrealistic, nakedly political, or downright stupid. He does not simply defend the Common Core; he accuses its opponents of “hysteria.” He has asserted that resistance to Medicaid expansion is “really either political or ideological”; he maintains that, with immigration reform, no option can be taken off the table, including a path to citizenship; and do not get him started on the nuttiness of the anti-vaccine folks — or the pols too gutless to stand up to them. “When you are an elected official, you have to chart your course. You have to feel good about who you are, and that means that you’re not going to respond to every yowler and screamer or every extremist that confronts you,” he marvels. “It’s just crazy. I look at this thing about vaccinations now. We’re not supposed to get a measles vaccination. What? Who are you responding to? Where does that come from?”
To Kasich fans, this is exactly the sort of independence that makes him a good leader. “John is a breath of fresh air,” says former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “He is a different kind of Republican. Albeit a staunch conservative, he is known to take unorthodox stands and think independently.”
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)Detractors, by contrast, see his rhetoric as proof that he is a RINO — a Republican in name only — or someone desperate to curry favor with moderates, establishment donors, and the media. Commenters on conservative sites such as Red State, Breitbart, and National Review denounce Kasich as everything from “a fraud” to “a lying liar” to “an establishment clown.” Outraged over his Medicaid antics, former Mitt Romney health care adviser Avik Roy has declared that Kasich has a better shot at marrying Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton than at seriously contending for the 2016 Republican nomination.
But is he actually running? That was one topic the straight-talking governor would not discuss with me. “I’m going to defer on that one,” he says. Nor will he be drawn into analyzing the field as it is shaping up: “I would never comment on the field! What, are you kidding?”
It seems clear, though, that he’s thinking about it: The week after my visit, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that he had met with party pooh-bahs, including former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and former Sen. John Sununu (from the early primary state of New Hampshire). On February 17, Kasich popped up in The Washington Post, talking about ISIS and telling reporter Robert Costa that he had been studying up on the foreign policy landscape. The next day, he took his balanced-budget road show to the key primary state of South Carolina. He was in Washington this past week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress, pitching himself for post-speech media commentary — and letting it be known that he was headed soon for New Hampshire.
If the governor does eventually plunge into the race, one thing seems guaranteed: He would be, by a large margin, the Republican field’s most provocative voice. No, he likely wouldn’t win, and he might well get the snot kicked out of him. But more than any other underdog flirting with 2016, John Kasich — defiant, outspoken, critical of conservatism from within — could upend the tenor of the primary season.
TO GRASP WHERE Kasich is coming from, it helps to skip the usual categories — libertarian, social conservative, budget hawk, neocon — and instead view his actions through the lens of impatience: impatience with bureaucracy, with partisan posturing, with ideological purity. “John Kasich is one of the most energetic and innovative idea-oriented Republicans of his generation,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “He is a person who gets up in the morning wondering what six things he can get done by lunch.”
Kasich’s impatience is a visible force: He is forever fidgeting in his chair, rocking on his toes, waving his hands, jumping into conversations, and generally refusing to remain at rest. (Two or three times during our hour-long interview, he popped up to go to the bathroom or simply pace.) The 62-year-old somehow looks disheveled even when sporting a suit — as though he has no time for distractions like personal polish. His hair, transformed by time from a brown mop to a gray bristle, perpetually appears to have been slept on wrong. When not speaking, his lips twitch and purse.
His leadership style is equally restless. Staffers say he hurtles from one mission to the next without taking a breath. “There’s always the next thing,” says his press secretary, Rob Nichols. “You finish something monumental and get done, then everybody just kind of forgets about it and moves on to the next giant thing.” Explains Jon Allison, an Ohio GOP lobbyist who led Kasich’s statewide charge for Medicaid expansion: “There is this constant churn of new ideas he’s putting in front of the Legislature and the state.”
The story of Kasich’s political rise is certainly one of a young man in a hurry. Raised in the Democratic, blue-collar burg of Mc-Kees Rocks, Pennsylvania — the son of a mail carrier, as he mentions at every opportunity — he headed west to attend college at Ohio State. As the legend goes, a month into his freshman year, Kasich pestered his way in to see OSU President Novice Fawcett to gripe about all the rules and regulations governing dorm life. When he learned that Fawcett was headed to Washington the next day to meet President Nixon, Kasich asked to tag along. Fawcett demurred but agreed to deliver the president a letter from Kasich. In it, the freshman shared his thoughts on the state of the nation, then invited Nixon to contact him if ever he wanted to talk. Two months later, Kasich found himself being ushered into the Oval Office for a 20-minute heart-to-heart with the leader of the free world.
Following college, Kasich went to work as a legislative aide in the Ohio statehouse. Two years in, he decided he’d make a better lawmaker than any of the folks running the place and launched a two-year, long-shot campaign to unseat a Democratic senator. He surprised everyone by winning and, at age 26, became the youngest member ever elected to the Ohio Senate. Four years later, in 1982, he ran for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, again unseating a Democrat. (In between, Kasich’s first marriage, to his college sweetheart, melted under the intensity of political life.)
Around Washington, Kasich quickly became known for his hard-charging manner (“He was a very young congressman who valued brashness over reflection,” recalls Ging-rich) as well as for his fiscal conservatism. A deficit fanatic, he set out to slash fat wherever he saw it. In his 2006 book, Stand for Something, Kasich brags that Dick Cheney “to this day despises me” as a result of the then-Defense secretary’s clashes with Kasich over the then-congressman’s fight to defund the B-2 bomber. (“You know, I have three New York Times best-sellers,” Kasich informs me early in our time together. He hopes to write another book sooner rather than later; he says it would be called Nothing Good Is Ever Lost.)
In 1989, Kasich landed on the Budget Committee, where he let his inner deficit hawk soar. With Bush 41 in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, he began introducing his own leaner, meaner alternative budget every year. In 1993, he leapfrogged six senior colleagues to become the committee’s ranking Republican. When the GOP took the House the following November, landing Kasich in the chairman’s seat, he became the key player in the bloody budget battles with President Clinton. A couple of government shutdowns later, Kasich emerged as chief architect of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
Riding high, in February 1999, Kasich jumped into the race for president. He pitched himself as the fresh, hip, dynamic “Jolt” cola candidate amid a sea of blander, less-carbonated options. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the “Rockin’ Republican’s” cheeky warning to a group of prospective campaign volunteers: “If you don’t want to have fun, go somewhere else. Go work for one of those other fuddy-duddies, because we may have to go get a beer every once in a while.”
Five months later, Kasich 2000 was kaput, squashed flat by the George W. Bush juggernaut. On his way out the door, however, he assured The Washington Post‘s David Broder, “I’m not giving up my dream to be president.”
If Kasich runs, says Gingrich, he’ll have to “learn to have serenity in the midst of the chaos.”
Opting not to run for another House term, Kasich spent the next decade in a (slightly) lower gear, sampling life in the private sector. He served on corporate boards, made a chunk of change as a managing director of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and kept himself in the political mix as host of his own Fox News show, From the Heartland with John Kasich. He had a little more time for his second wife, Karen, and his twin daughters, born in 2000. In 2006, Ohio Republicans tried to recruit him to run for governor. He declined.
By 2010, however, he was ready. Buoyed by voter anger over the weak economy and riding the anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic wave, Kasich ousted Democrat Ted Strickland. In the process, he bonded with the tea party, whose own impatience for change impressed him. (In one radio interview, Kasich warned Republicans that tea partiers were itching to hang obdurate pols “from the nearest tree.”) At a press conference in early 2010, he proclaimed, “I think I was in the tea party before there was a tea party!”
KASICH BLEW into the Governor’s Mansion with renewed force. On week one, he summoned lobbyists to his office and memorably warned them: “If you’re not on the bus, we’ll run you over with the bus.”
For his first high-profile crusade, he took on organized labor, championing legislation to limit collective-bargaining rights for public employees. The Legislature was happy to accommodate, and less than three months after being sworn in, Kasich signed Senate Bill 5 into law. The unions promptly struck back, launching a fierce campaign to repeal the measure via referendum. Activists mobilized. Money poured in from out of state. Kasich’s popularity cratered. Come November, SB 5 was crushed at the ballot box, a defeat that garnered national coverage and humiliated the governor.
But then things took a turn for the weird. The pugnacious Kasich conceded defeat. Graciously. On election night, he issued an official statement noting that “the people of Ohio have spoken, and I respect their decision.” And then, he let the issue go.
For some Kasich-watchers, this was when the governor began to moderate. “Considering how much skin he had in that issue, it was a pretty defining moment,” says Jon Allison. “To take that defeat, accept it for what it is, to pivot, and move on.” “He came into office Mr. Tea Party,” observes Ohio political reporter Henry J. Gomez. “He immediately went after the unions. That didn’t work. His poll numbers were in the tank. Then he gradually started moving back toward the center.”
Others simply see Kasich as having grown into his role. “I think he has advanced and expanded in terms of understanding that he’s now kind of the father of Ohio,” says Doug Preisse, a longtime Republican activist and Kasich pal.
Kasich offers a similar self-analysis. “What’s really happened is I have grown as a person, in my opinion,” he says. “Some would probably think I haven’t. They would think I got diverted somehow. I have grown. I’ve become more sophisticated. And now I’m in a position where I can really lead.”
But whatever you do, do not suggest to the governor that he has mellowed — not unless you are prepared to get an earful. “When you’re a public figure, which I’ve been for almost all my life — since I was 25 years old — everybody wants to do an analysis,” he says with exasperation. “First of all, they didn’t know me before, and they don’t know me now. For example, I read, ‘He makes verbal gaffes.’ OK. Could you give me an example? ‘He’s undisciplined.’ Oh really? How did we turn Ohio around if we didn’t have discipline? ‘His attention span is limited.’ No. It’s just that you may be saying something that really bores me, and I hear it out of this ear, but my brain is over here doing something else.”
TO THE EXTENT that Kasich acknowledges that he has changed, he attributes it, in part, to his faith — which, he says, is “deeper than it was before.” Indeed, ask friends and colleagues what motivates the governor and, pretty quickly, the discussion circles around to religion. Kasich had your garden-variety Catholic upbringing; then, as often happens, he drifted from the church when he struck out on his own. But in the summer of 1987, a drunk driver rammed his parents’ car as they were pulling out of a Burger King parking lot. Neither survived. The tragedy provoked an intense bout of soul-searching in Kasich, eventually leading him to evangelical Christianity. Over the years, it has become an increasingly influential part of his life and his political thinking.
“He is a man of faith. It’s on his shirtsleeves all the time,” says Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio and a big fan of Kasich’s commitment to mental-health care. (This is a personal as well as spiritual issue for Kasich, whose younger brother suffers from mental illness.) “His faith tells him he has to help those who cannot help themselves,” Russell says. “And it’s hard for his colleagues to argue with him when he brings up moral and ethical issues.”
“He does believe that there is a responsibility to try and help people,” says former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, an old friend of Kasich’s from their days together on the Budget Committee (not to mention their budget battles when Panetta was Clinton’s chief of staff). “John’s heart is in the right place. He wants to do the right thing for people.”
Kasich’s willingness to drag God into political debates does not distinguish him from his conservative brethren. His intense focus on the biblical mandates to help the poor and needy, however, does. It is, for instance, hard to envision a Rick Perry or Scott Walker or Ted Cruz lecturing fellow Republicans, as Kasich did as an Ohio legislator in 2013: “Now when you die and get to the … meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor.”
“He was a very young congressman who valued brashness over reflection,” recalls Gingrich. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)This is, in fact, the very kind of social-justice talk that liberals have been throwing at free-market conservatives for years, which makes Kasich’s lectures all the more galling to some. (More than one offended social conservative has taken to the Web to fume that Kasich knows bubkes about Matthew 25.) “If you explain a controversial move as an act of faith, you run the danger that everybody who disagrees with you will feel like you’re saying that they don’t have faith,” says Gingrich, noting gently, “I think John has a tendency to get argumentative in a way that doesn’t necessarily win arguments.”
Fleischer agrees that any talk that smacks of social justice can push Republican buttons. Even so, he says, this is a subject on which the GOP would do well to engage: “Republicans could learn a lot of lessons from John Kasich about the importance of helping the needy. He exudes it. Emotes it. You feel it. For a party that’s struggling to connect to people who are low-income or poor, John knows how to connect because it is genuine and heartfelt.”
For his part, Kasich expresses optimism that his vision of faith is catching on. “You know what I’m finding?” he asks excitedly. “You notice the language of people now that are running for president? How that language is starting to change? It was pointed out to me the other day. It’s a little bit more about compassion, a little bit more about the poor. That means I’m winning. I don’t know that I’m winning, but the force that’s driving me is winning.”
ON FEBRUARY 2, one day after introducing his 2016”“17 budget, Kasich stands before a fresh-faced audience of business majors at the University of Dayton, practically begging them not to move out of the state after they graduate. “We need you to stay in Ohio!” he tells the several dozen students, who are crowded into rows of narrow folding chairs. “We’re getting older. I’m getting older!” His voice is passionate — urgent even — as, with shout-outs to Maroon 5 and Linkin Park, he urges them to stay and make Ohio a hotbed of coolness. “We need your energy!”
Following his talk, as other speakers take the floor, the governor — dad-like in a blue-on-blue argyle sweater and black pleated slacks — fidgets along the perimeter of the room, sipping his coffee and periodically hijacking the conversation. When the state’s tax commissioner asks for a show of hands from those planning to leave Ohio, Kasich cannot control himself. “Why aren’t you staying?” he demands of the respondents. The young people eye one another with awkward smiles, but the governor is dead serious. He starts picking them off one by one: Why aren’t you staying? Where are you going? What about you? He calls on a young man in the row directly behind me, who, it turns out, is returning to the Chicago suburbs where his family lives.
“You are going to live with your mom and dad?” Kasich ribs.
“Not that close,” the student clarifies.
Kasich is not appeased: “Have you got feet in your pajamas, too?”
Amid the laughter, Kasich immediately begins making nice, allowing that you can’t really fault a guy for sticking by his family. Still, the exchange is a reminder that, for Kasich, it’s a fine line between charming warrior and off-putting jerk. As his communications director, Scott Milburn, so delicately puts it, “He kind of gets off on conflict.”
The fighting instinct has often come in handy during Kasich’s tenure as governor. His Medicaid victory, most notably, required much blood, sweat, and political maneuvering — all while taking incoming fire from his own party. Then there was his 2011 battle with Ohio’s powerful nursing-home industry: Kasich wanted to shift funding toward home-based care; nursing homes were, understandably, displeased; the industry launched a PR blitz against the governor, including a TV attack ad accusing him of literally pulling the plug on grandma and grandpa. “That commercial was seen as having crossed a line,” says Greg Moody, Kasich’s chief health care adviser. The governor refused to back down and eventually won the necessary votes in the Legislature. A decidedly un-conciliatory Kasich went on to veto subsequent bills by the Legislature to aid the industry. “The governor,” says Allison, “reminded the nursing homes that they really shouldn’t have gone on TV.”
Some find Kasich’s fighting spirit appealing. “The thing that I like about John is, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t pull any punches,” says Panetta. “You really have a sense that you’re dealing with somebody who’s really telling you how he feels about an issue and where the possibilities are for trying to find some consensus.”
Kasich’s in-your-face disposition doesn’t go over well with everyone, however. Dems and conservatives alike will, when disgruntled, blast the governor as a bully. And some of the scars left by Kasich date back decades. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, recalls his first encounter, as “a dewy, young” press secretary newly arrived in Washington in the wake of the 1994 Republican Revolution. “I’m full of vim, vigor, and optimism. This is heady stuff!” he recalls. “So I’m asked to go to a briefing from John Kasich, chairman of the Budget Committee and a conservative hero. I show up for this briefing, I ask what I thought was very a basic question, and he just rips into me in front of all the other press secretaries. This is John Kasich.”
“He’s prickly,” says Henry Gomez. “And he doesn’t take criticism very well.” Members of Team Kasich do not deny the governor’s irascibility. “Occasionally he’ll give a speech where he’s speaking very frankly, and folks are like, ‘Oh, my goodness, he just insulted me,’” says Moody. “Folks aren’t used to folks being as direct as he is.”
But it is, loyalists argue, all in the service of a noble cause. “He just has this real impatience and urgency to get about doing good work,” says Moody, who also previously worked for Kasich on the Budget Committee. “You can get so driven by that, that you’re not necessarily kind of thinking through how that urgency is coming across.” (Before Moody agreed to come work for the governor again, he confronted Kasich about what a bad boss he had been the first go-round: “When he called me and said, ‘I’m getting the band back together,’ what I said was, ‘I remember you were pretty difficult to work with.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was.’ But he told me he believed he had mellowed considerably. I said, ‘Well, OK. I’m willing to take a chance.’” So far, so good, as Moody says Kasich has gotten much better about valuing team members.)
Doug Preisse posits that Kasich’s argumentative manner is very much a part of the culture in which he was raised. Five years ago, recalls Preisse, he took a trip to McKees Rocks to get a sense of the forces that had shaped the governor — visit his family, his church, that sort of thing. “Over there,” he says, “when people want to discuss an issue, they jump into an argument. It’s not a hostile approach, more like, ‘Oh, yeah? Here’s what I think.’ There’s a banter and an exchange that goes on.”
“John has always been outside the country-club, board-of-directors, CEO part of the Republican Party,” says Gingrich. “He’s closer to the caddy than to the guy who pays the country-club fees.” Kasich himself credits part of his scrappiness to his upbringing. “I come from a community where, you know, I was always taught by my parents to fight for the underdog,” he says.
But whatever the roots or reasons, Kasich’s not-always-genial persona could prove problematic if he acts on his national ambitions. Because, for better or worse, the American electorate tends to go with presidential candidates who come across as likable. Panetta chuckles at the thought of Kasich enduring the trials and tribulations of a presidential run: “He doesn’t have a helluva lot of patience. He likes to get to the point. Having the ability to kind of sit back and be able to listen to a lot of viewpoints he disagrees with, that’s not going to be easy.”
Gingrich offers a slightly different take. “People instinctively want a president to have a certain kind of stability,” he says. “They recognize that presidents can do a lot of damage.” If Kasich decides to enter the presidential fray, advises Gingrich, he’ll have to “learn to have serenity in the midst of the chaos.”
Not everyone is such a downer, though. “So he runs as the thin Christie!” quips Grover Norquist, with a nod to the pugnacious New Jersey governor currently eyeing the White House. In these scary global times, “people want tough,” Norquist says. “If it can be portrayed as strength of personality or conviction, it can be an asset.” But he is quick to clarify: “Grumpy doesn’t work. You cannot be grumpy at your audience.”
KASICH’S BRAND of political impatience could fuel or tank his presidential fortunes in 2016. Either way, it would arguably do wonders for the process as a whole. The Republican Party has been struggling to define what it stands for, whom it represents, and where its future lies. Having a seasoned, articulate combatant willing to ask awkward questions, poke sacred cows, and call out episodes of pandering, posturing, or hypocrisy would make the debate more honest and, ultimately, more valuable. A vigorous primary serves voters well, argues Fleischer (who’s staying neutral in the race): “I want these guys to run and compete and have differences, so that primary voters can figure out what they want.”
Kasich absolutely wants to be a part of the political debate, say those around him. “He does have a real interest in participating in the conversation about what it means to be a conservative,” Moody says. “He’s very concerned there’s a kind of cold-hearted version that has turned a lot of people off from — specifically — the Republican Party.” In multiple recent interviews, the governor himself has testily asserted that he has as much right as anyone to define conservatism — more even. As he huffed to CNN late last month: “We’ve cut taxes more than anybody in the country, and they’re wondering about my conservatism? Maybe I should wonder about theirs.”
So what are the odds that Kasich will run? In the past, he has said he would not venture back onto the presidential trail without a surer flow of funding than he had in 2000, when Team Bush crushed all comers. The irony is not lost on Kasich that, were he to run this cycle, he likely would face yet another Bush. Asked if a Jeb candidacy gives him a case of déjÃ vu, Kasich diplomatically offers: “I know Jeb. I like Jeb. He’s kind of a policy guy, like I am, more than a political guy. And good for Jeb. We’ll see how he does out there. It’s — we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
Lest anyone think that the return of the Bush money machine is a deal-breaker, however, Kasich offers a prediction that even he allows may be wishful thinking: “One thing I think may be true, although I think they say this every time there’s an election: Money probably won’t matter that much this time around. Those could be famous last words. I don’t know. But I think that there’s clearly an undercurrent of change going on in the country. People are like, What is going on?” Muses the governor hopefully, “It might be that it will be something different that will matter more than money.”
Bottom line, Kasich tells me: “All options are on the table. I’m not taking them off. I’m not making any decisions.” But for now, he says, “my energy and my passion and my fight is in two things: Ohio and my balanced-budget cause.”
Speaking of which: When I suggest that crisscrossing the country in the hopes of convincing 34 states to call a constitutional convention on balancing the budget seems a bit quixotic, he appears almost amused. “Is it? Am I Don Quixote? I’ve been that way before!” He flashes me a smile. “And you know what? It seems to work out.”