2016 presidential dark horses — a look at John Kasich and Mike Pence

After the 1848 revolution in France, the slogan of the non-socialist revolutionaries, lifted from a speech by Lamartine, became “the tricolor [flag] has gone around the world; the red flag [of socialism] has only gone around the Champ-de-Mars [a large park on the Left Bank of Paris].”

These days, portions of the Republican base are partial to conservative presidential hopefuls who, so to speak, have only gone around the Champ-de-Mars. Think of the enthusiasm for the relatively inexperienced Sarah Palin in 2008 and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie after 2010, and for the political novice Herman Cain in 2011 before allegations of sexual harassment surfaced.

The tendency is understandable. Candidates who have not gone around the political world are almost blank slates. They are largely free to take whatever positions will play best in the moment, without fear of contradicting past actions. And conservative voters are largely free to ascribe their beliefs to these candidates.

Candidates who have been around the track a few times (to shift the metaphor slightly) are a different proposition. If they served a full term or more as governor, they probably raised a tax or two in order to balance the budget. If they served in Congress for an extended period, they probably cast votes that, though perhaps not heretical to conservatives at the time, now seems so to some.

John Kasich and Mike Pence, both governors of substantial Midwestern states, have been around the track many times. Both served with distinction in Congress. Kasich was a congressman from 1981 until 2001. He was a key player during the heady Gingrich days during which he became Chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Pence served in Congress from 2003 until 2013. Like Kasich, Pence was an influential member, as evidenced, for example, by his stint as head of the Republican Study Committee.

Kasich was elected governor of Ohio in 2010. His early days were rocky, but polls now show him to be comfortably above water in this swing state, as Ohio experiences strong economic growth (in January, job creation in Ohio was second only to Texas). As John Miller points out, Kasich “has turned a deficit into a surplus even as he has lowered income-tax rates and wiped out the state’s death tax entirely.”

Pence was elected governor of Indiana in 2012. After a year in office, he remains popular.

Kasich and Pence both receive mention from time to time as 2016 presidential contenders. Allahpundit discussed Pence’s prospects here. John Miller of National Review profiled Kasich here.

Although they are similar in terms of their political trajectories, their presidential prospects raise somewhat different considerations. A Kasich candidacy for the Republican nomination would likely suffer from his having been around the track so many times. For example, as a congressman Kasich supported the assault weapons ban passed by Congress in 1994. That same year, he helped pass a crime bill that contained restrictions on firearms.

As governor, Kasich accepted the Medicaid expansion for Ohio. He has cited his Catholic religious belief in helping poor people as the basis for this decision. Paul Ryan is sometimes called Kasich 2.0, and the similarities extend beyond the fact that both are budget hawks.

On the other hand, Kasich is the popular governor of the quintessential swing state, where he has put together a solid record of achievement. And his willingness to deviate from conservative orthodoxy might help him in a general presidential election if he were somehow to win the nomination.

Pence came to Washington shortly after Kasich departed. He quickly became a leading conservative voice in Congress. Even so, his positions aren’t fully immune to conservative criticism.

Pence’s “no amnesty immigration reform” drew fire from some who called it “stealth amnesty.” And his hawkish foreign policy positions, though welcomed by most conservatives at the time, are not in step with the views of an increasingly influential conservative faction today. So too, arguably, with his strong socially conservative views.

Nonetheless, only the most finicky conservative would find Pence an objectionable presidential candidate on ideological grounds. The greater concern might be that, unlike Kasich, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush, Pence has never shown an ability to win swing voters. His electoral success has been confined to a conservative congressional district and a reasonably Red state.

On balance, Scott Walker looks like the Midwestern governor of choice in 2016. Compared to Pence, he has greater potential to win over swing voters (while still holding the base). Compared to Kasich, he is unburdened by past positions with which most conservatives will quarrel.

Walker has only “been around the Champ-de-Mars,” though it was an eventful and invigorating run.

But Pence and Kasich are both worth keeping an eye on.

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