To be fair, I’m an ardent John Kasich supporter. But to many (including myself) watching last Wednesday, he barely registered. The night before the debate, Governor Kasich, who had conducted, to some insiders’ surprise, a relatively calm campaign, unleashed a tirade against this “crazy election” that had him openly questioning: “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?” With desperation and disbelief, he announced that he has “about had it with these people,” and ridiculed Mr. Trump’s nativist ideas on immigration, as well as Dr. Carson’s tithing-based tax reform and now-abandoned plan to end Medicare.
For starters, he’s right. Nevertheless, when Governor Kasich tried to make these points on national television, Mr. Trump and a combat-hungry audience sidelined him. “My great concern is that we are on the verge of picking someone who cannot do this job,” Mr. Kasich cautioned the audience in his opening remarks that unfortunately inspired no response. (Even as Dr. Carson’s first statement that his greatest “weakness would be not really seeing myself” as president seemed to validate this claim.) After Governor Kasich danced around naming names, CNBC pressed him for the full story. Noticing his lackluster standing and the lukewarm response his reasonable statements were making, Mr. Kasich leapt for the soundbite of the night. “This stuff is fantasy…Folks, we've got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn't know how to do the job.” Although this primary is in desperate need of a voice of reason, angrily condemning fellow Republicans’ strategies is no way for Mr. Kasich to climb the ladder, especially if those you are after are the current frontrunners: the most beloved man in either race and the most effectively destructive candidate to plague either race.
It is a rare occurrence when Mr. Trump chooses to defend his policies without first attacking, and just as Ted Cruz described, defensive maneuvers do not work in this “cage match.” So Mr. Trump chose to hit Governor Kasich where it hurts, that which he predicates his candidacy and political life on: his much-touted track record. “First of all,” Mr. Trump yelled as he yanked his microphone closer, “John got lucky with a thing called fracking…believe me.” Well, you shouldn’t. But like many of Mr. Trump’s other baseless claims, it kind of feels right, and in the moment, it seemed to eviscerate Governor Kasich’s standing. One gut punch delivered.
“Number two,” Mr. Trump bellowed into the microphone as he pointed his accusatory, spray-tanned finger at Governor Kasich, “This is the man that was a managing general partner at Lehman Brothers when it went down the tubes and almost took every one of us with [them].” In a boardroom calling all the shots? He assuredly was not (frankly, that sounds a lot more like Mr. Trump). From 2001 to 2008, Mr. Kasich worked out of Lehman Brothers’ two-man Cleveland, Ohio office. However, any association with big banks in this election, no matter how unfounded, is devastating. Another punch to the side.
There must be a chapter in Mr. Trump’s book The Art of the Deal on circumstantial ad hominem attacks; if the Donald cannot substantiate his policies, he accuses the other party of having an opportunistic bias. “Thirdly,” Mr. Trump snarled into his microphone, straightening himself to deliver the death knell, “He was so nice. He was such a nice guy. And he said, ‘Oh, I'm never gonna attack.’ But then his poll numbers tanked. That's why he's on the end. And he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.” Gasps, oohs, and laughter spread across the theater as Jeb Bush could be seen grimacing, recognizing his parasite attach to a new host. Governor Kasich tried to call Mr. Trump’s non-sequitur allegations “a joke,” but his retort was too cerebral, and the playground bully held his head high, certain that he had come out on top. Appearing the next day on The O’Reilly Factor, Mr. Trump claimed that he “put down [Governor Kasich] so strongly, for the rest of the debate he was just sort of limping along.” The loudest voice in the room seals the collective impression of the past and Mr. Trump effectively sold Governor Kasich to the American public as a “loser.” With that, the smear-fest was over. The last one punch landed below the belt. KO Kasich.
Ronald Reagan once invoked the 11th Commandment that thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican and won twice with that message of positivity. The adage still carries some merit. As FiveThirtyEight tracked, Mr. Trump’s most prolific twitter attackers (George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and Jim Gilmore) are at the bottom of the Republican field and likely cast these aspersions out of desperation. Yet Mr. Trump’s most frequent victim, Jeb Bush, has slid into ignominy as he’s struggled to combat “low-energy” labels and his last name’s baggage. But Reagan could never have predicted the anomaly that is Mr. Trump. He does not purport to be a serious candidate with an upstanding record, which allows him to bypass the usual rules of the game. Not letting facts or common decency throw off his groove, Mr. Trump doesn’t attack policies where the viewer can’t keep score of the punches. Spectators want to feel the impact, and character assaults are the most devastating and entertaining. Governor Kasich started out of his element because he refused to stoop to the level of jungle gym antics, whereas the reality TV star only deals in ratings. Even though Governor Kasich provided more substance later in the debate on various issues like JobsOhio, Medicaid, income inequality, and college debt than Mr. Trump has in his whole campaign, he could not generate the same kind of interest for himself as after the first debate.
My advice? Governor, cool off a bit. CNBC already did enough nitpicking of each candidate’s policies that there was no need for you to chime in. Your experience and poise far outrank anything Mr. Trump could ever evoke. Stop providing the clown with material, and let him get antsy—become yesterday’s news—before he turns to the ascending opponent right next to him, his dear “friend of mine,” Ben. Then, watch as the base tosses out one or the other. Still, something tells me mild-mannered Dr. Carson will get the upper hand when it becomes abundantly clear to evangelicals that Mr. Trump is just a loudmouthed thug. If you keep complaining, you will start sounding even more like Jeb. So stick to the message Governor, New Hampshire is counting on it.
The image featured in this article was taken by Michael Vadon. The original image can be found here.
Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.