NEW YORK — John Kasich gave a sweeping address here Tuesday that the Ohio governor hoped would reframe the presidential race in his favor. Speaking in midtown Manhattan just five blocks from Trump Tower, Kasich summoned Republican voters to reject the billionaire front-runner and instead nominate an experienced hand who, in a spirit of bipartisan comity, could solve Washington’s intractable problems.
But in the political year of the outsider — a season in which Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have torqued their rhetoric and fed off unending voter fury — Kasich’s appeal came across to some as another gasp from a wing of the Republican Party in hospice.
“I don’t know that there’s a salesman in the Republican Party who could pitch that sell to Republican voters today,” GOP strategist Rick Wilson said. “If Ronald Reagan came back from the dead and delivered Kasich’s speech, you’d have Republicans going, ‘Ehhhh, maybe not.’ ”
So it is that Kasich is running a distant third in the nomination contest, espousing a brand of Republicanism — based on results, experience, bipartisanship, solutions — that won elections in the 1990s and 2000s and is still extolled by party leaders but has little currency with today’s voters.
The animus can be traced to the George W. Bush presidency, when wars abroad, government spending at home and the financial collapse exacerbated tensions between conservative activists and the governing class. The divide worsened after Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 yet failed to counter President Obama’s agenda as decisively as the base had expected.
Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist, said Trump’s candidacy has been the impetus for “a permanent disruption” that could leave the Republican Party changed for years to come.
“The betrayals of the political class and the lies have enabled Trump to effectively erase the path for traditional Republicans. The Kasichs of the world, the Paul Ryans, the Mitch McConnells, the Reince Priebuses — they’re not going to get another shot for a while,” Viguerie said, referring to the House speaker, Senate majority leader and Republican National Committee chairman.
As if to underscore the point, a few hours after Kasich gave his speech in New York, Ryan sought to forcefully end the ongoing whisper campaign to draft him into the presidential race with a news conference in Washington.
“I do not want, nor will I accept the nomination for our party,” Ryan said in remarks delivered at the RNC’s headquarters.
The idea of nominating Ryan on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July started months ago as a donor-class fantasy and had since metastasized. Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, is a favorite of many conservative elites, benefactors and thought leaders.
But though Ryan retains a tight grip on power in the House, his domestic agenda — cutting taxes, curbing entitlement spending and overhauling poverty programs — is no longer the beating heart of the party that it was only four years ago.
“Politics today, it tends to drift toward personality contests, not policy contests. Insults get ink more than ideas,” Ryan said. “But we still owe it the country to show what we would do if given a mandate from the people. We have an obligation to give a clear picture — a clear choice. To talk about solutions.”
Kasich has been advocating a similar type of conservatism, in contrast to the more emotional politics of grievance practiced by Trump and, to a lesser extent, Cruz. In his town-hall meetings, Kasich talks extensively about his experience in government, such as balancing the budget in Congress and creating jobs as governor.
“A lot of people have wondered, ‘Why does he keep talking about what he has done? Why?’ ” Kasich said in his Tuesday speech. “We’ve got to have somebody with the experience, the knowledge, the know-how and the record of success to deal with these problems in a turbulent time.”
Kasich said the GOP faces a choice in the presidential contest between “Two Paths,” which was the title of his 30-minute address.
The path his two opponents offer, he said, “exploits anger, encourages resentment, turns fear into hatred and divides people. This path solves nothing. It demeans our history, it weakens our country and it cheapens each of us.”
The other path — the one Kasich said he offers — “is well trod. It is at times steep, but it’s also solid. It is the same path our forebears took together. And it is from this higher path that we are offered the great view.”
Kasich did not mention Trump or Cruz by name, but they were unmistakable targets as the governor ticked through their policy proposals, from deporting illegal immigrants (Trump’s) to surveilling certain religious neighborhoods (Cruz’s). He said they would “drive America down into a ditch, not make us great again” — a reference to Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again.”
“A political strategy based on exploiting Americans instead of lifting them up inevitably leads to divisions, paranoia, isolation and promises that can never, ever be fulfilled,” Kasich said. “I say to you that this path to darkness is the antithesis of all that America has meant for 240 years.”
He spoke to a formal crowd of a couple of hundred people at the Women’s National Republican Club, clutching a wooden lectern as he read his speech from a prepared text and stood before four American flags.
“What John is providing is the historically right message in a historically wrong year,” Republican strategist Ari Fleischer said. “It can’t match the mood of this year. People aren’t looking for an insider. They’re not looking for experience. They’re looking for an outsider who will do things differently.”
After a string of disappointing finishes in recent primaries and caucuses, Kasich is trying to gain traction here in New York, whose primary is next Tuesday, and in a handful of Northeastern states voting later this month. Kasich’s advisers believe his message can resonate here more than it has in other regions of the country, although polls in New York show him as much as 30 points behind Trump.
Kasich has struggled since winning his home-state primary last month, which allowed him to hang on as one of the final three Republican contenders in the race. His national poll numbers consistently hover around 20 percent, and he has been unable to pick up a single delegate in any subsequent contest. Last week’s third-place finish in Wisconsin, with just 14 percent of the vote, was particularly humbling.
The Ohioan is so far behind in the delegate count that it is mathematically impossible for him to secure the nomination outright. But he is betting that no one else will win a majority of delegates, which would force a contested convention, where Kasich thinks he can persuade enough Republican delegates to nominate him over Trump or Cruz.
“Our hope is that delegates will listen to John and eventually get serious at the convention,” said Robert Walker, a former Republican congressman and Kasich friend and supporter. “Either rationality will begin to prevail, or it won’t and we’ll lose the general election. You can’t win in most states with fear and smear.”
Kasich has been frustrated that voters categorize him as an establishment figure simply by virtue of his years in public office without appreciating his history as a firebrand budget cutter in the House who made enemies in his party.
Channeling the candidate, Walker pleaded with voters to not brand Kasich as a party insider: “Don’t lump us together. Please.”
Costa reported from Washington.