John Kasich entered last night's Republican debate champing at the bit and raring for a fight. Asked a standard job interview question about his greatest weakness, he launched into a tirade against front-running candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, saying that the Republican Party was on the “verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.” Kasich explicitly named their signature positions as being “fantasy” politics. “I've watched to see people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and leave the senior citizens out in the cold,” the Ohio governor said. “I've heard them talk about deporting 10 or 11 [million] people here from this country out of this country, splitting families. I've heard about tax schemes that don't add up, that put our kids in a deeper hole than they are today.”
Kasich’s line of attack wasn’t a complete surprise. He made the same accusation earlier in the week, saying that the proposals coming out of the Republican primary were “just crazy.”
In so aggressively tackling the polling front-runners, Kasich took a big gamble—which he lost. He was, after all, going after figures who are a magnitude more successful than he has been in this race. As an experienced professional politician with executive experience as the governor of a large Midwestern state, Kasich is exactly the type of candidate Republican voters are rejecting this year. According to The Huffington Post’s aggregation of the polls, as of yesterday Trump stood at 32.5 percent of support, Carson at 21.8 percent, and Kasich at a mere 3.1 percent.
The risk of attacking Trump and Carson is, of course, that you might alienate their supporters. For this reason, other Republican candidates have been wary about going after the front-runners.
Except for Jeb Bush’s failed swipe against Marco Rubio, the other Republicans were trying to keep internal party debates to a minimum. Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, and Rubio all emphasized that the Democrats were much bigger enemies than anyone on stage. This made Kasich’s jabs against Trump and Carson all the more notable.
If Kasich was hoping to gain any traction from this strategy, he is bound to be disappointed. He's right that Trump and Carson are peddling fantasies, but his fundamental problem is that he underestimates the Republican base's desire for political illusions. After all, large swaths of the Republican Party believe in such discredited ideas as climate change denial and supply side economics. Voters like this aren’t likely to blanch at Trump’s numerous tall tales or Carson’s manifest haziness about basic policy.
It doesn't help that Kasich doesn’t do anger very well. His persona is that of soft-spoken competence, combined with compassion. When he tries to sound enraged, he undermines his own identity without creating a plausible new one.
All these problems were manifest in an exchange he had with Trump, with interjections from CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla:
KASICH: To talk [as Ben Carson does] about we're just gonna have a 10 percent tithe and that's how we're gonna fund the government? And we're going to just fix everything with waste, fraud, and abuse? Or that we're just going to be great? Or we're going to ship 10 million Americans—or 10 million people out of this country, leaving their children here in this country and dividing families?
Folks, we've got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn't know how to do the job. You have got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline.
And I spent my entire lifetime balancing federal budgets, growing jobs, the same in Ohio. And I will go back to Washington with my plan.
QUINTANILLA: Governor—Governor. Thank you, Governor.
KASICH: And I will have done it within 100 days, and it will pass. And we will be strong again. Thank you.
QUINTANILLA: Mr. Trump, 30 seconds.
TRUMP: First of all, John got lucky with a thing called fracking, OK? He hit oil. He got lucky with fracking. Believe me, that is why Ohio is doing well. Number—and that is important for you to know.
Number two, this was 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 it, including Ben and myself, because I was there and I watched what happened.
And Lehman Brothers started it all. He was on the board. And he was a managing general partner.
And just thirdly, he was so nice. He was such a nice guy. And he said, "Oh, I'm never going to attack." But then his poll numbers tanked. He has got—that is why he is on the end.
(LAUGHTER) And he got nasty. And he got nasty. So you know what? You can have him.
“And he was so nice.” With these five simple, monosyllabic words, Trump destroyed Kasich. The Ohio governor can rant all he wants about Trump and Carson, but he won’t convince GOP voters, all while muddying his own reputation for niceness.