By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
On the day that Paul Ryan said he really, truly, honestly did not want to be the Republicans’ presidential savior, John Kasich did his best to channel the House speaker. Both undertakings underscored how much trouble the old pro-business, pro-tax-cut conservatism faces.
A cynic might theorize that since absence makes the heart grow fonder, Ryan’s reticence would only make his party hope and pray harder that he would deliver it from catastrophe. But the 46-year-old speaker knows that the 2016 GOP is unlikely to be the vehicle for the neo-Reaganite revival he seeks. He’s much better off waiting until 2020.
Kasich, in the meantime, did what he should have done long ago, casting Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (without naming them) as taking the party down the “path to darkness.”
If you like what Sarah Palin once mocked as “that hopey-changey stuff” (and I do), the Ohio governor’s New York speech was a magnificent relief from the horror movie motifs and exclusionary rhetoric that have become the staples of this year’s Republican contest.
“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 declared.
“We have heard proposals to create a religious test for immigration, to target neighborhoods for surveillance. … We have been promised that unpopular laws shall be repealed simply through the will of a strong man in the White House.”
Lest there be any doubt that Kasich had a certain very loud real estate developer in his sights, he offered this: “Some who feed off of the fears and anger that is felt by some of us and exploit it feed their own insatiable desire for fame or attention. That could drive America down into a ditch, not make us great again.”
Kasich urged us toward that most old-fashioned of ideas, national unity. “Fear turns to hope,” he said, “because we remember to take strength from each other.”
All this is lovely, and you can imagine Hillary Clinton, assuming she wins the Democratic nomination, deploying Kasich quotations this fall. One of her new campaign commercials is called “Stronger Together.” It’s a good overall theme for her. We’re stronger when we rise together economically and when we don’t reject each other for reasons of race, ethnicity or religion.
The problem for Kasich involves his solutions. In his speech Tuesday, he proposed a balanced budget; a freeze on most federal regulations; tax cuts for individuals and businesses; sending “welfare, education, Medicaid, infrastructure and job training” programs back to the states; a guest worker program; and fixes to Social Security that would certainly involve some cuts.
In other words, he reprises the same agenda conservatives were offering in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It’s an approach that even many in the GOP — particularly working-class Trump supporters — see as inadequate. It also happens to be a variation on Ryanism.
If these policy retreads no longer unify the GOP, they also have little to say about the challenges facing the country in our era.
If you wonder why Republicans have not been able to unite against Trump (or, really, at all), it is because they are divided into increasingly irreconcilable factions.
You can count at least five of them. There are two kinds of social conservatives: those who respond to the religious right’s central concerns, notably opposition to abortion and gay marriage; and those who take a hard line on immigration, race, national identity and, increasingly, free trade.
Libertarian Republicans take a consistently small-government view, which often leads them to favor social tolerance and oppose foreign intervention. The neoconservatives are defined primarily by their support for aggressive American engagement in the world, often of a military sort.
And the business-oriented Republicans for whom Kasich and Ryan speak make low taxes and less regulation their highest priority. While their personal attitudes are often similar to those of libertarians — thus the warm openness of Kasich’s oratory — corporate Republicans have been willing in the past to make concessions to social conservatives to win support for their core goals.
Holding all these groups together amiably is now beyond the capacity of even the most gifted GOP politicians. Ryan knows this, which is why he is sticking to his current job and hoping his party can regroup intellectually. Kasich, bless him, wants Republicans to sound a whole lot nicer. But in the clamor of factionalism that plagues the party, the political base for niceness just isn’t big enough.