It wasn’t until the very end of his sit-down interview with Ohio Governor John Kasich, held in the auditorium of the University’s International House on Monday, May 1, that David Axelrod asked the question on everyone’s mind. Following a lengthy Q and A that covered everything from President Trump to religion, Axelrod, likely sensing his time was nearly up, finally asked Kasich, “Do you see yourself running for president again?”
Kasich’s response was as candid as it was expected: “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Despite this unsatisfying conclusion, Axelrod’s conversation with Kasich offered attendees a new insight into how this fiscal conservative from the Midwest is, in his own words, “carving out my own agenda.” Beginning with Axelrod asking, in predictable fashion, what grade Kasich would give President Trump on his first one hundred days (to which Kasich responded “an incomplete”), the conversation soon shifted to broader topics. Led on by the governor’s long and sometimes rambling responses (Kasich himself remarked, in response to a student question, “I probably have to get a little bit better … at saying things in a shorter way”), the discussion transitioned from Trump to the healthcare debate and eventually to politics in the abstract. In the process, Kasich won over much of the crowd. He earned widespread applause after Axelrod pointed out his unique position on healthcare (Kasich broke with his party years ago in accepting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and has recently been a vocal critic of the Republican-led alternative, the American Health Care Act) and he responded, “I don’t go to the RNC to find out what my opinions are.” Similarly, his calls for a “kinder politics,” which included a plea to “not be angry at someone because they disagree with you,” was well received by an audience exhausted by the frighteningly polarized national discourse.
Perhaps the most fascinating moment of the event, however, came when Axelrod asked Kasich directly what he would tell Republicans voting on the AHCA. After responding “I would tell them ‘please don’t vote for this bill,’” Kasich launched into a monologue on society’s responsibility to the disenfranchised. Remarking that “neither party, at the end of the day, really has as a priority the poor and the disadvantaged,” he appealed to the need for a common morality. He rooted this morality in religion, claiming that as “we have become a more secular society … we go from objective values to subjective and we’re not even sure what virtue is.” Perhaps sensing that he had lost some of the room, Kasich clarified that the need for religion was in no way limited to Christianity, and distanced himself from the more controversial aspects of his faith, laying claim instead to its teachings on social justice. However he remained fixed in his position that “big societies … cannot run without a sense of transcendence.”
This interlude was so fascinating in part because it embodied the unique brand of politics that Kasich has been offering of late, a brand which calls for religion and acceptance, social justice and fiscal responsibility, and above all, kindness. At moments, one could almost imagine that the students in the audience were at a Bernie Sanders rally listening to Kasich rant about the lack of empathy for the poor in modern politics. At other moments, Kasich sounded like a Republican evangelist as he pleaded for religion’s return to the political mainstream. The peculiar dichotomy of the moment spoke to the peculiar space the governor occupies; as he tellingly reflected later on, “I don’t think I have a base anymore.”
Yet, Kasich’s unique brand seems to be working. As Axelrod noted at the beginning of the event, the full auditorium was “a pretty good crowd for two o’clock on a Monday.” Hundreds of college students, most of whom did not self-identify as Republican in any way, took time out of their week to see the conservative governor of a midwestern state speak. While 2020 is a long way away, Kasich’s appeal for a kinder politics seems to be resonating with Americans. In the meantime, all that is left to do is, in Kasich’s words, to “root [for Trump] like I root for my pilot.”