John Kasich believes in a path, in a purpose set from above. He just can’t figure out what this path or purpose is supposed to be.
A year after losing his Republican primary campaign that never got off the ground, 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, the Ohio governor doesn’t quite know where he’s headed, or where the Republican Party is headed either.
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“To me, it’s a struggle,” Kasich said, sitting down with me in Washington for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast. “I have a right to try to define Republicanism and conservatism as much as anybody else and, you know, I think there’s a little struggle right now and I think the party doesn’t quite know where it’s going.”
Kasich is on tour for a book, "Two Paths: America Divided or United," that he insists really, really isn’t about running for president again, though the promotion has included a stop in New Hampshire and an eagerness for interviews of the sort that’s standard for someone whose interest in the White House is at least a maybe.
Asked if he’s thinking about forcing Trump into a primary, Kasich said, “Well, I don’t know.”
“I mean, I have 18 months left in my job as governor. I do want to maintain a voice. I do want to maintain some sense of a political operation. But am I going to run? I mean, if my wife was listening to this, I would have to say no. But look, you never know when duty calls and I don’t know what that means,” he said. “So we’ll see.”
What Kasich knows for sure is that he doesn’t like Republican candidates who’ve already been emulating the president’s politics and approach. Among those is Josh Mandel, the leading Republican candidate for Senate in his home state of Ohio, hoping to take down progressive champion Sen. Sherrod Brown and cement the political change in the state that Trump’s decimation of Clinton seemed to indicate.
“Any politician who is going to be in the dividing business, I’m not helping,” Kasich said. He pointed out that he supported Mandel in 2012, in his last run against Brown. I asked if this meant he wouldn’t be supporting Mandel this time around, and he gave the kind of answer politicians give when they don’t want to say no—that he doesn’t know enough to make a decision just yet.
“I don’t know what he’s going to be saying but if he is a negative guy, if he is a divider, I won’t,” Kasich said.
Kasich’s big concern in the book is the crisis around facts, and what the undermining of them is doing to create more divisions in American politics. “We can’t live in our own reality. Not if we hope to come together and attempt to solve the very real problems facing this great country,” he writes early on.
I asked him to put that up against Trump’s rebuttal to a Time Magazine reporter who asked him in March about whether he feels any regrets about saying and tweeting statements that are immediately or before long shown to be false: “I can’t be doing so badly because I’m president and you’re not.”
“I have no clue what he means by saying that,” Kasich said.
At least part of what Trump means, I suggested, is that he’s the one in the Oval Office, and Kasich is the one who carried only the Ohio primary.
“First of all, maybe I won. I’m serious. Does that mean in order to win you have to necessarily achieve what you set out to do? Maybe in the process of doing it, you win. And I don’t feel like a loser. I feel like a winner,” he said.
For all his problems with Trump, Kasich went to the inauguration (and sat next to Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who lent him a raincoat). As for that inaugural address, Kasich said, “it was a very unusual speech and it wasn’t helpful for the country and, you know, I don’t know. It was—it just wasn’t good.”
On the one hand, the governor said he hasn’t liked what he’s seen from Trump since, but on the other, he said he’s been happy to see a moderation take hold in what’s coming out of the administration.
“I see the politics gravitating toward a lot of the positions that I had when I ran in the campaign, which were frankly boring to the media because they were not dramatic declarations of pie in the sky,” he said, with some bitterness.
Kasich’s solution to the division in the country is for people to get more religion, like he did after a freak drunk driving accident that killed both of his parents in the middle of the night when he was 35 sent him into a spiral of searching and reading that he says turned God from a “rabbit’s foot” for him into an active daily presence.
“The growing secularization of this country has—it’s like losing your compass when you’re lost in the woods,” he said.
He writes in the book that he’s got a new sense of what the afterlife entails, but when I ask him to explain it, he admits it’s still hazy in his head, something about re-inheriting the Earth, something about living like Adam and Eve.
“Did they have work? Yeah, they tended the garden, they named the animals,” he said. “They had a good life. I mean, I think that at that point, we will—we will have somehow—and I can’t describe it and I can’t describe the dimension that we’re going to have. But I think we’re going to be at a point where we don’t be jealous. We won’t be—we won’t see death.”
How precisely Kasich fits into God’s plan continues to be hard to pin down, he admitted.
“I used to ask, I used to just ride in the car by myself driving, ‘OK, God. Explain to me how life works.’ And then one day, I sort of got this message. I didn’t hear anything or get an email or anything but it was like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to tell you. Forget it, OK?’” Kasich said. “So I don’t understand it.”