Yesterday I was able to attend John Kasich's 2010 gubernatorial campaign announcement and rally. And I have to say that, while everyone knows it is a tough road ahead, he started things off very well last night.
Ohio seems poised to shake off the ugliness of the past few years with a number of candidates who can excite the grassroots and bring the GOP coalition back together again. Kasich's rally last night gave a glimpse of the excitement that is building.
For more, see below.
First, the setting was perfect. The announcement took place in Westerville, Ohio - Kasich's hometown - not downtown at the Statehouse. After the earlier storms cleared away it was a beautiful afternoon and evening. And the setting of The Everal Barn gave the event the feel of a grassroots gathering - complete with local musicians - not a carefully managed political stage show. Obviously a lot planning went into the evening, and plenty of politicians and staff were in attendance, but it didn't feel overly-managed and the mood was laid back and natural - even as the clear excitement about the candidate's appearance began to build.
In this perfect setting what you are looking for is the substance and style o the speech to back it up; a sense that the candidate is ready for the challenge ahead. The questions on most people's minds in these situations are: Why is he running? Does he have the right focus? And can he pull it off? I think Kasich answered all of those questions.
Kasich made it clear that he is running because the state, and the country, needs leadership that current officials are not providing. Kasich outlined his career in congress working towards shrinking government, balancing the budget, and cutting taxes. He spoke of how so many told him these things were impossible; that the system couldn't be changed.
He recalled with pride how he had put together a team to get elected and work toward those goals. And after a lot of hard work how that team was an integral part of accomplishing those supposedly impossible goals. And he noted with sadness, and a touch of anger, how ten years later those very accomplishments were being torn down and destroyed the current congress and administration.
Kasich made a compelling case that he felt called back to public service because it was his duty to give back to the state and community that had given him so much. He forcefully argued that in these challenging times we simply can't shrink from service or ignore the problems we face. He refused to leave public service to the cynical and maniulative.
And Kasich clearly knows what is on the mind of voters in Ohio and across the country: the economy. And he framed this issue brilliantly.
Kasich bluntly acknowledged that Ohio had been in the ditch for some time and that as a result of years of bad decisions we had drive ourselves even deeper in that ditch. And now for too many dynamic and talented people Ohio is no longer the place where they choose to seek their dreams; where the most talented young people want to live and work. Instead, places like North Carolina, Florida, Austin, Silicon Valley, or outside of Boston are viewed as the places to seek success. To do what Kasich's parents encouraged him to do "Dream Big. And change the world."
Kasich argued that the current policies and programs are not going to change this; will not lead us out of the ditch. And while he was willing to admit that leadership in both parties had drifted in recent years, he argued that Governor Ted Strickland was simply not up to the challenges Ohio is facing.
He described Strickland as a nice "caretaker" using this humorous but effective analogy:
If you have a house on the river and the flood's coming, he's going to show up Saturday morning with a box of doughnuts and a pot of coffee, you'll sing Kumbaya and hold hands and watch your house float down the river.
Kasich explained that the solutions were not new - they are the very same goals and ideals that propelled him to serve in the first place. In order to make Ohio a place where the best and the brightest want to live and build their dreams, we must reform government, improve education, and change the business climate.
And the recipe for success is the same as when he first ran for congress: shrink government, require accountability in eduction - from distrcits, schools, teachers, students, and parents alike - and remove the burdens on businesses that force them to relcocate or prevent them from succeeding.
Kasich noted that just like last time there would be many who would say these goals are impossible. And the interest groups that benefit from the current policies would fight change. But Kasich vowed to once again bring together a team and to unite Ohioans to meet these challenges and accomplish these goals.
He didn't, howver, paint a rosy scenario of the work that was involved. He acknowledged that the upcoming election would be a great deal of hard work. He acknowledged that balancing the budget, shrinking government, and cutting taxes would be a momentous task and one that would take time.
But he wasn't content to mouth platitudes either. Kasich argued that his goal would be to work hard enough over time at "skinnying down" government and growing the economy that Ohio could get rid of the income tax that keeps it in such an uncompetitive position with other states.
As I said, Kasich took to heart his parents mantra to "Dream Big, and Change the World." At a time when many are talking about the fear of raising taxes and, the left is blaming Ohio's budget problems on previous tax cuts, Kasich set out a goal of getting rid of the state's income tax!
Kasich seems to understand that the free market economy creates wealth and higher standards of living for Americans. And that if Ohio can create the environment that attracts entrepreneurs and successful businesses they will bring the jobs. Punishing the most successful only pushes the job creators, and source of most philanthropy and charity, out of state.
So Kasich has an asnwer for why he is running and he has a focused message on the number one issue of the day. But the final question is a big one: Can he do it?
Well, obviously I think having the first two questions answered in a convincing and attractive way goes a long ways toward answering this last question.
But I also think that Kasich has the tools and the circumstances to become Ohio's next governor. He has a folksy and populist style even as he has the experience and track record of tackling these problems. He is a good public speaker but doesn't come off as too slick. And he has an economic situation in Ohio that is ripe for a full-throated conservative message of smaller government and the free market. But at the same time he isn't afraid to admit Republicans have made mistakes and drifted from their principals.
This may seem counter-intuitive at a time where government is growing by leaps and bounds and voters seem to be doubting the market. But the Democrats simply don't know how economic growth happens and they seem incapable of not over-reaching.
The bailouts, stimulus and run-away spending of the Democrats on the state and national level are not going to bring jobs to Ohio. Strickland's supposed buddy, President Obama, couldn't save the car industry jobs that are disappearing in Ohio as we speak and Mr. Turn Around Ohio hasn't turned anything around.
And as this continues I honestly believe that the voters are going to give GOP candidates the chance to be heard; to offer an alternative vision for the future. And what we have to have is candidates who are ready to give that vision and to sell it to voters willing to listen. John Kasich is that type of candidate.
This will take a lot of hard work. And Kasich repeated that mantra throughout his speech. But what is exciting about Kasich is his ability to make Republicans believe again and to remember how to work together again as a coalition with like goals in mind. And if Ted Strickland and President Obama hasn't drive home the lesson of elections have consequences, I don't know what will.
Kasich started that process last night. And I am confident he will continue to lay out that vision as the campaign continues. Our job is join him, and other similar candidates around the country, and put in the hard work needed to win.
If we do we really can Dream Big and Change the World.