When Vice President Joe Biden declined to run for president, he left an opening in this race for an aging avuncular white dude with aw-shucks blue-collar appeal and wackadoodle mannerisms. Gov. John Kasich saw that opening and ran through it like Eddie George, only way slower and with too many gesticulations to ever hold on to a football.
It served him well enough to allow him to hang on through the primary process for his first win in his home state of Ohio Tuesday, where he beat frontrunner Donald Trump by 10 points.
He got to Ohio largely without coming under attack from his opponents, who viewed him as a longshot with no path to the nomination. His rhetoric, as is the luxury of a trailing and untouched candidate, remained ostentatiously positive and above the fray. He has patted himself on the back for his ability to reach across the aisle, both in policy and politics — a skill borne out in the 60-plus-percent approval rating in Ohio that lifted him over Trump.
He has referenced his Washington experience only to invoke the days of better bipartisanship — when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan famously didn’t hate each other with the heat of a thousand suns. Like Biden, he has made himself a symbol of a bygone world with a better politics. Like Biden, in order to do so, he airbrushed the hard edges of his partisan career.
The memory of Biden’s judiciary committee hatchetman role has faded in the warm glow of his goofy, unvarnished inhabiting of the vice presidency. Likewise, memories of Kasich’s bruising Budget Committee days in the ’90s have been subsumed by his new role as governor of the great state of Sunshine and Potential.
Tonight, Kasich vowed, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.” It’s a nice promise, but it will be interesting to see how well it holds up when Trump begins mocking him and worse. Despite their makeovers, Biden and Kasich share with Trump an ability to get rough-and-tumble and tell it like it is with unpretentious enthusiasm. It’s a skill that gives all of them access to working-class Americans other politicians envy. Kasich has benefited thus far from downplaying this part of his persona, but at the cost of conceding that ground to Trump in every other state.
A man who has a mean streak — Kasich has called legislators “knuckleheads,” “thugs,” and “bullies,” Politico noted in a story on his unlikely transformation — may not be as good at containing it when he no longer has a Rubio in the race to dish out insults for him while taking incoming from Trump.
“I’m getting ready to rent a covered wagon. We’re going to have the wind blow us over the Rocky Mountains to California,” Kasich said in his victory speech Tuesday, perfectly channeling the slightly nonsensical folksiness of Biden. His poised, professional wife Karen, over his shoulder, offered another parallel.
Well, if the Ray-Bans fit.
But if Trump unleashes the old Kasich, it could be a BFD.