David Brooks, in assessing a possible GOP presidential field, calls Ohio governor John Kasich “easily the most underestimated Republican this year.” That strikes me as right.
In 2014, Kasich won by more than 30 points. He carried heavily Democratic counties like Lucas and Cuyahoga. In fact, in a key swing state, Kasich carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties and a quarter of the African-American vote. He’s also one of America’s most engaging and interesting politicians. He would add a lot to a presidential race, and in fact he probably already has, for the reason Brooks homes in on.
Governor Kasich’s inaugural speech was about values and virtues, about the good life and the good society. He spoke about economic growth as being a means to help those who live in the shadows of society. He warned about the toxicity of an ethic of instant gratification; the importance of personal responsibility, resilience, teamwork, family, and faith; and about empathy being the first ingredient in compassion. According to the Ohio governor, we have to “reach out to those who have been forgotten, disenfranchised, ignored, or who are suffering, and to reach out to them in the way they need.” He pointed out that just because someone has a different opinion, it doesn’t make them an enemy. “We’re not here just to keep up with the Joneses and outrun everyone else,” Kasich said. “We’re here to serve and to love and to heal—in keeping with the spirit of a power far greater than ourselves.” In his tribute to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kasich said, “He stands as a shining example of the power that one person can have on the world forever when they’re true to their faith and let themselves be a vessel for the Lord.”
These are sentiments authentic to Governor Kasich and deserve praise in their own right. Yet there is also a useful political purpose to them. I say that because they offer the beginnings of a roadmap for Republicans when it comes to dealing with the “values” issues.
These days, lots of Republicans are spooked when it comes to talking about culture and social issues. They’re afraid of being characterized as judgmental, censorious, and puritanical. The demagoguery of the Democrats (Republicans are waging a “war on women” and want to ban contraception), combined with a culturally liberal press and significant shifts in public attitudes, has made them afraid of talking about “values.”
They need not be. What Governor Kasich is doing is to show Republicans how to speak about our culture and moral aspirations in a way that is quite different than Republicans have in the past–in ways that are more uplifting, self-reflective, generous in spirit, and appealing. No one is going to confuse John Kasich with Franklin Graham. Some social conservatives won’t like that; they will consider it a capitulation.
I don’t think that’s right, in part because I find Governor Kasich’s temper of mind and the orientation of his heart to be more aligned with the precepts and spirit of his faith, Christianity, than others who speak in its name. One does not have to be angry, brittle, and condemnatory to be faithful–and humility, forbearance, kindness, and grace in the public square are not signs of weakness or apostasy. One can be both principled and pleasant at the same time.
And one other thing: If Republicans develop a vocabulary that frames moral issues in the context of human dignity and human flourishing–explaining why there is a right and wrong ordering of our lives and loves and why we need to strengthen our character-forming institutions–it will make the public more open to hearing from them on what Kasich calls the “volatile” issues, by which he probably means same-sex marriage and abortion. Even on these issues, there are better and worse ways to present your case. (On abortion, for example, the pro-life case can be made on the grounds of expanding the circle of protection to the most vulnerable members of the human community.)
A smart political strategist told me years ago that if you’re seen as the aggressor in the “culture wars,” it can blow up in your face. If that wasn’t true a generation ago, it’s certainly the case now, for Republicans. That isn’t a reason for them to avoid talking about moral truths; it’s a reason to talk about them in the appropriate way.
John Kasich is showing Republicans and conservatives how to do that. They’d be wise to listen to him.