Opinion

How John Kasich! stole Jeb!'s exclamation mark

And how Jeb plans to get it back

John!

It was as if Ohio Gov. John Kasich had stolen Jeb Bush's exclamation mark. With his second-place finish in New Hampshire, Kasich didn't just defy his (many) naysayers. He proved what some observers had warned last fall: that his presence in the campaign defined the shape of the race.

As I noted in November, Kasich's entry into the GOP presidential race created the dynamic of the crowded/divided "establishment lane" — pushing Marco Rubio to pivot hard on immigration and reposition himself as a very hawkish national security candidate. And the strange vigor of Kasich's presence at the debates managed to make Bush look even more limp than he was. "Sure," I suggested a few months back, "[Kasich] took it too far for rightwing populists, raining derision on Donald Trump and other immigration hawks. But in New Hampshire, which Bush is treating like a must-win, the Kasich we saw [at the November debate] is likely to play much differently."

If Bush underperformed Kasich in New Hampshire, I ventured, his donors would desert him. (I hadn't counted on Rubio's reckless and irresponsible attempt to frame his Iowa bronze medal as some kind of pre-coronation.) And what do you know? Kasich thumped Bush and Rubio, and seems poised to knock the once-promising Chris Christie right out of the race.

Not bad for a guy who perhaps best embodies the most ostensibly unfashionable strain of conservatism around — the compassionate kind. Kasich avows that his big-government sense of rectitude is closer to God's heart than many Republicans can believe. On immigration, Medicaid, poverty, and other issues, Kasich echoes George W. Bush's famous dictum that, as a matter of moral responsibility, "when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

Perhaps for these reasons, however, Kasich lacks much of a hope outside of New Hampshire. Across the country, his polls, his infrastructure, and his ground game are but a whisper. Despite his best-of-establishment finish in the Granite State, he has cemented a reputation as an inexplicable spoiler, lacking the ego of Trump, the hubris of Rubio, or the kind of constituency Rand Paul had inherited. What is he trying to prove?

An answer might be found in that classic Bushism about heroic federal helpfulness. Guess who else seemed to invoke that line recently? "The Republican way is if people need help, we're gonna help them," said Donald Trump. Anxious conservatives have begun to wonder aloud whether Trump might make like Bernie Sanders — New Hampshire's other big winner — and attack ObamaCare from the nominal left. If he did, Kasich could fit right in, making the claim that government health care, unlike today's corporatist monstrosity, is both constitutional and reliable. And who among Republicans wouldn't want Trump's dangerous independence ameliorated and moderated by a decent GOP lifer like Kasich?

Well, Jeb Bush, that's who. He wants his exclamation mark back. And, it seems plain, he has a plan to get it.

"Kasich ran a one-state campaign," Bush spokesman Tim Miller said Tuesday. "He does not have a viable path to the nomination at all, and he certainly does not have a viable path to success in South Carolina, a state where support of the military is critical."

Rather than simply outspending Kasich and Rubio until he's the last candidate standing without a torch in one hand and a pitchfork the other, Bush wants to re-establish his brand as that of the only truly mainline conservative who can win the nomination and the White House. Too few Republicans trust that Kasich can go the distance, and too few trust Rubio, period. That's where Bush comes in — or where he'd like to.

Still, no matter how well Bush or Kasich perform, it is Trump's world they're living in, not the other way around. Kasich gives us a glimpse of how the mainstream GOP would reconcile itself to that once-unthinkable world. Even at his high water mark, Kasich has revealed a party establishment at low ebb.

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