The Unbearable Smugness of John Kasich

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John Kasich waves goodbye after formally announcing his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during a kickoff rally in Columbus, Ohio on July 21. The Ohio governor's campaign wants you to believe he's a rebel and iconoclast. But really he's just a narcissist, the author argues. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

On July 20, Ohio Governor John Kasich announced his presidential ambitions from the campus of his alma mater, Ohio State University. USA Today ran a fawning profile of Kasich's potential path to the presidency, which it admits is hindered by the fact that a) most Americans don't know who Kasich is and b) those who do don't seem too keen on him becoming president.

But "maybe the doubters don't realize what a big deal it is to be the governor of Ohio," USA Today offers.

Every time Kasich addresses a group of Republicans, he talks about his landslide re-election in 2014. Almost without fail, several people say: "Wow." Once, in Georgia, someone gasped.

Ah, yes, Kasich's landslide 2014 victory, which Ohio Republicans helped bring about by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a libertarian competitor out of the race.

While no one's suggesting Libertarian Party candidate Charlie Earl could have won the governorship, he would almost certainly have taken conservative votes away from Kasich. Let's also remember that Kasich's Democrat opponent, Ed FitzGerald, was all but abandoned by his party in the final months of campaigning after scandals involving his running mate's taxes, his own potential affair and his onetime lack of a valid Ohio driver's license.

So Kasich's "landslide victory" (he ultimately beat Fitzgerald 64 to 33 percent) is as much a product of Democrat self-sabotage and GOP sabotage of the Libertarian candidate than anything else.

If you talk to Ohioans—and Ohio is my home state, so I do—you'll find that most people don't really like Kasich, not even Republicans. They might like his stance on spending, or taxes, or abortion, but Kasich himself? Arrogant. Condescending. Manipulative.

In Politico on July 20, Alex Isenstadt explores what he calls Kasich's "anger management problem."

Kasich has "a résumé seemingly tailor-made for a serious run for the Republican nomination: blue-collar upbringing, congressional budget hawk, Fox News commentator, investment banker, successful two-term governor of Ohio," writes Isenstadt. "But there’s just one problem, according to interviews with dozens of those who’ve worked in politics alongside him at various points over the last several decades: his short fuse."

Isenstadt collects myriad, anonymous examples of people (including wealthy donors) who Kasich has pissed off with his prickly personality. Even Senator John McCain—not exactly known as a model of decorum and restraint—has spoken of Kasich's "hair-trigger temper."

Kasich's crew is trying to play this potential liability as a sign of the governor's authenticity and willingness to call the proverbial spade a spade, something they say voters will recognize and appreciate. I guess we'll see. There's no doubt that shtick plays well with the GOP base (see Bush the second) but Kasich's particular brand of brimstone seems more pouty narcissist than rhetorical rebel or iconoclast.

Consider this anecdote, from Politico:

Matt Mayer, a conservative activist in Ohio, can recall an incident from 2011. He was walking down the street with a friend when they ran into Kasich and his entourage. Only months earlier, Mayer, who was working at a think tank called the Buckeye Institute, had released a report calling the state’s government bloated and inefficient.

Spotting the two, the governor ignored Mayer but pulled aside his friend, telling him something out of earshot. The friend walked back over. “I’m supposed to tell you the report’s wrong,” the friend said.

To the governor’s detractors, run-ins like those underscore his inability to accommodate the views of others. "When you criticize Kasich, you’re sort of dead to him," said Mayer. "That’s the way it works."

Want further evidence? See this 2014 video of Kasich meeting with the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board, in which Kasich is upset by people asking him about an amendment to the budget bill he signed preventing rape-crisis counselors from talking to patients about abortion.

Kasich doesn't just refuse to answer a question from Democratic then-challenger FitzGerald, he refuses to even acknowledge the man is talking. When a guy from the Dealer prompts him to answer FitzGerald, Kasich's response: "Oh, did you have a question?" And it goes on like that for a bit.

Then there's the time Kasich repeatedly told a crowd how a cop who pulled him over for a traffic violation was an "idiot." The time he snapped at a woman over his Medicaid policies at a conference full of GOP donors. ("I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.")

The time he told a group of lobbyists, "If you're not on the bus, we'll run over you with the bus"...the 2012 state of the state address wherein he impersonated a person with Parkinson's disease...the time during his 2010 campaign when he mocked then-Governor Ted Strictland for having grown up poor.

When the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature refused to back Medicaid expansion in 2013, an angry Kasich went around them by appealing to the state's Controlling Board. (This is basically the gist of why Vox writer Andrew Prokop called Kasich "the most interesting GOP presidential contender.") This June, unsurprisingly, Kasich vetoed a budget-bill item that would have limited the Controlling Board's near-unilateral authority to accept federal grants for the state.    

Perhaps none of this would be so bad if Kasich was nearly as politically brilliant or unstoppable as he and supporters claim. But poke any of his cherished claims—the landslide '14 victory, the lowering of Ohio taxes (rather, Kasich is a fan of what's better described as "tax shifting")—and they kind of fall apart. And in the hands of his marketing team, Kasich's claim to blue-collar roots and sympathy comes off awkwardly hollow:

My dad carried mail on his back. A lot of people worked in steel plants, iron works. The kind of stuff you guys are doing. So, growing up in that was good, because, see, I kind of – not totally – but I kind of get you guys. I didn't come highfalutin, you know what I'm saying?

When one RB Abrasive factory employee, a 21-year-old, tells Kasich his biggest dream is to own his own house someday, Kasich seems stunned, then asks, "Do you save? You can't spend all the money on fishing gear." I know lower-class white males aren't typically a group we reserve much offense for, but the random fishing comment seems about as appropriate as if Kasich had told a bunch of young black dudes not to spend all their money on 40s or ladies not to waste their paychecks on shoes.

"The thing about John Kasich is, he’s kind of a jerk," wrote Molly Ball at The Atlantic in April. It's quick becoming the conventional wisdom about Kasich—whom, Ball informs us, has a Machiavelli quote pinned to his office wall.

I spent several days with Kasich in Ohio in February, and during that time he told me, repeatedly, that he did not read The Atlantic —and his wife didn’t, either. He said that my job, writing about politics and politicians, was "really a dumb thing to do." ... At a Kasich press conference I attended at a charter school in Cleveland, he interrupted several speakers, wandered off to rummage on a nearby teacher’s desk as he was being introduced, and gleefully insulted the Cleveland Browns, to a smattering of boos.

Kasich has previously said that he does not read Ohio newspapers, either (they don't provide him with an "uplifting experience").

Kasich may have been "the Paul Ryan of his day" when he was in Washington, but perhaps the reform-minded yet combative upstart who won't take no for an answer has a shelf life. Politicians are supposed to evolve and become more effective with time, and what can be admirable and ambitious at 40 just seems immature, churlish and curmudgeonly by 63.  

Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a staff editor at Reason.com, which is where this article first appeared.