As John Kasich Rises, the Republican Party Runs Out of Ideas for the Working Class

Tonight, all eyes are going to be on John Kasich’s performance in the Ohio primary. With Marco Rubio’s campaign sputtering to an undignified halt, and with Republicans reluctant to embrace Ted Cruz, Kasich looks like the establishment’s last, best chance. Even Mitt Romney is campaigning for Kasich. Never mind the fact that Kasich, who has not won a single state thus far, has no clear path to the nomination; Republicans are desperate for a palatable general-election candidate, and Kasich is their last hope (okay, he’s actually their next-to-last hope, but Republicans really, really don’t like Ted Cruz.)

And so how is Kasich trying to represent the Republican Party’s future? By clinging to the policies of the Republican Party’s past, of course! Emily Atkins at ThinkProgress reported that at a rally in Youngstown, Kasich said Ohio communities couldn’t afford clean energy:

Here's your fresh face, Republican Party!

Here’s your fresh face, Republican Party!

The Ohio governor’s remarks came in response to a constituent who asked how he would “implement clean energy and green jobs” in Youngstown if elected president. The questioner noted that clean energy was important to fighting human-caused climate change, and that Kerry had recently travelled to Paris to negotiate an international deal to reduce emissions.

“I think when [Secretary of State John Kerry] went to Paris, he should have gone there to get our allies together to fight ISIS instead,” Kasich said to applause. He added that clean energy would be too expensive to implement in the Mahoning Valley, where the manufacturing industry has suffered in recent years.

Setting aside that strange attempt at tossing out some war-on-terror red meat, what Kasich is selling here is a false dichotomy: clean energy or good jobs. In fact, by tying Youngstown to the energy policies of the past, Kasich is doing damage to the community. (Nick Cassella wrote about this earlier today.) Demand for clean energy is high and only getting higher; investing in clean energy is the way to ensure that a community will be relevant for years to come; freezing communities in the 20th century economy will only bring about their gradual demise. Other countries understand this, and are preparing for the future. But by playing to the worst fears of Youngstown residents—your jobs will disappear if you listen to those hippies and terrorist-lovers—Kasich is sacrificing the future at the expense of his political present.

Kasich’s comments come at a very confusing time in the history of the Republican Party. As Matthew Yglesias reports for Vox, the National Review, which for years was the intellectual leader of the conservative movement, has published two pieces tearing into the kind of people Kasich was playing to in Youngstown. Kevin Williamson said:

The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

David French agrees:

Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. As I’ve related before, my church in Kentucky made a determined attempt to reach kids and families that were falling between the cracks, and it was consistently astounding how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives.

This is a momentous occasion. Pretty much every major electoral gain Republicans have made in my lifetime has been made thanks to white working class voters, and here you have two writers for a mainstream Republican publication making gross generalizations in an attempt to devalue that base. National Review‘s defection from the working class makes sense, when you consider the events of the last few years. There can be no doubt that working class America is in trouble, and Kasich’s empty promises signify the fact that the Republican Party is out of solutions. So the National Review, without any forward-thinking plans, is forced to give up on the working class entirely.

Donald Trump’s vague promises of “winning” appeal to those voters precisely because the lies of Republicans like Kasich have grown stale and tired. As Kasich pushes an impossible state of stasis, Trump promotes an anti-trade agenda that, while untenable, at least has the air of novelty. Trump’s populism has the distinct benefit of at least being something different from the National Review‘s anti-poor vitriol and Kasich’s establishment party line. That’s why he’s, well, winning.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.