John Kasich's Strategist Thinks Those Kasich-Is-the-New-Huntsman Stories Suck
On Tuesday, Ohio Governor John Kasich became the 16th candidate to join the GOP presidential field. In the press, this was happening: “John Kasich has a Jon Huntsman Problem,” “John Kasich and the Huntsman Trap,” “John Kasich Risks Becoming the New Jon Huntsman,” “John Kasich Enters Race. Is He 2016’s Jon Huntsman?” And just for variety's sake: “John Kasich: A Jeb Bush in Jon Huntsman Clothing.”
That's right: every political reporter on the planet had EXACTLY THE SAME hot take. The basis of this scorching analysis is that Kasich's chief strategist, John Weaver, was also Jon Huntsman, Jr.'s chief strategist in the 2012 GOP primary—and that didn't end well for Huntsman. He came in 7th place in the Iowa caucuses before finishing third in New Hampshire primary and dropping out of the race. Judging by this tweet from his daughter Abby, bad feelings linger:
I thought it would be interesting to know what Weaver thinks of the Official Beltway Consensus that his new candidate is a doomed-to-fail carbon copy of his old one. Perhaps not surprisingly, Weaver doesn't buy it and takes a jaundiced view of pundits pushing this line.
“Every campaign is different, every race is different—that’s pack journalism at its most glib and lazy,” he told me, after I rattled off some headlines. “Governor Kasish is a conservative’s conservative. His conservative record, for many of these reporters who don’t seem to want to do any research, dates back to Congress when he took on welfare reform, led the effort to balance the budget, was a defense hawk, helped reform the Pentagon, balanced budget in Ohio, cut taxes.”
There are, I pointed out, some outward similarities between the two men. Both served as governor. Neither fits the mold of a standard-issue Republican presidential candidate. Both derive satisfaction from acts of conservative apostasy: Huntsman believes in evolution and compared the Republican Party to communist China, Kasich expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act and doesn't give a rat's ass if some people don't like it.
In the discussion that ensued, Weaver listed a number of differences that I'll group into four categories:
Jon Huntsman, Jr., is the wealthy scion of a Utah family whose patriarch, Jon Huntsman, Sr., got ridiculously rich by inventing those styrofoam clamshell containers your Big Mac used to come in at McDonald's before the world awakened to environmentalism. Kasich's roots are much more modest. “His background [is] in a rough-and-tumble town outside Pittsburgh.” His father was a mailman.
Both Huntsman, Jr. and Kasich style themselves “truth-tellers” who won't be intimidated. Huntsman's problem, though, is that he was intimidated. Asked at a Fox News debate if he'd reject a budget deal that skewed 10-to-1 in favor of budgets cuts over tax increases—in other words, a fantastic deal for Republicans—Huntsman lost his nerve and raised his hand along with every other candidate on stage, a move he now regrets:
Stipulating that “this is just about Governor Kasich, not anybody else,” Weaver essentially vowed that Kasich won't back down in that situation: “What I’m saying is there’s not a stage that’s too big for Governor Kasich, and there’s not a moment that’s going to be too big for him, either.”
Ties to Obama
Before he ran for the GOP nomination in 2012, Huntsman was President Obama's ambassador to China. “He had worked for the president,” says Weaver. “That’s a huge difference.” It tainted Huntsman in the eyes of many conservatives right from the beginning. Kasich hasn't worked for Obama. Expanding Medicaid under Obamacare could cause him problems, although Weaver disagrees. “That’s just a difference of opinion,” he says. “That’s not Barack Obama’s money. That money belongs to the taxpayers of Ohio. And the fact that Governor Kasich brought that money back to Ohio, expanded Medicaid and held the rate of growth from 9 percent to 4 percent—better than anywhere else in the country—is a sign of leadership.”
Jon Hunstsman, Sr., wasn't willing to let his entire styrofoam-clamshell-fortune ride on his son's presidential bid. In 2012, Weaver says, “Huntsman had not one TV ad, no piece of direct mail, no paid phone calls—no money.” By contrast, Kasich is already up on TV in New Hampshire, has two 527 committees that have reportedly raised more than $11 million, and has an established network of donors that should keep the money flowing.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the day Kasich announced his campaign.