At this crucial stage in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, John Kasich’s presence is in one sense irrelevant (it’s obviously a two-man race) and yet at the same time its effect on the process may be so devastating that it will determine the outcome. Accordingly, it is a matter of urgency that some important questions be asked: what are Kasich’s reasons for staying in the race? What is he trying to achieve? How legitimate are his reasons and his goals? And if they don’t pass the test of legitimacy, what can be done about that?
As to what he is trying to do, there seem to me to be only four possibilities:
The first and the only fully legitimate one is that he is competing to win the nomination — but that can be dismissed out of hand. Aside from Kasich’s home state there have been 29 state primaries. Kasich doesn’t have a single victory in any of them, and has rarely managed even second place. He has no chance whatsoever of winning either a majority or a plurality of delegates.
The second possibility is that he is trying to increase his delegate count to perhaps 300 so as to position himself as a compromise candidate in case of a deadlock between the first two. This can also be dismissed out of hand. Both front runners are vehemently anti-amnesty and anti-establishment, and their combined delegate count will amount to around 80 percent of the total. There is no chance whatsoever that a liberal establishment Republican who is pro-amnesty can be nominated in a convention hall that is overwhelmingly opposed to everything he stands for. A compromise candidate acceptable to this convention won’t look a bit like Kasich, and he knows that perfectly well.
The third possibility is that Kasich wants to be the kingmaker: if both Cruz and Trump wind up short of the delegate number needed for a first ballot win, and Kasich has enough delegates to put either one over the top, then he can decide the nomination. But if that is what Kasich is doing, it is clearly illegitimate, and in fact despicable. The choice between Trump and Cruz belongs to Republican voters, not Kasich. The voters have clearly decided that the race is between those two, and they are now ready to make that choice in a series of contests between them in the remaining state races. Kasich has no right to take that choice away from the voters and make it something he decides. That would clearly be an abuse of the nomination process.
The fourth possibility follows from the third. Kasich might be staying in the race to accumulate leverage so that he can sell his delegates to whoever offers the most to him. Most obviously, he might be looking to force his way onto the ticket by selling his delegates for the vice presidency. Again, this is clearly an abuse of the nomination process, for one very obvious reason: it matters enormously to the nation whether Trump or Cruz wins the nomination, and it also matters a great deal that that question be decided in the most legitimate way — by a series of straightforward votes in the remaining states. Kasich’s personal ambition, on the other hand, is of zero national importance. If he is subordinating a very big issue (who the GOP voters really want as their nominee) to a very small one (his vanity), then he is again behaving despicably.
Since the first two possibilities can easily be dismissed and the third is by itself rather pointless, it seems most likely that the fourth possibility is indeed what Kasich is really up to. If so, then he is apparently willing to grossly distort the results of the competition for votes between Trump and Cruz in order to advance his own ambition. The Republican electorate is ready for and needs a straightforward choice between the two remaining serious candidates at the ballot box, and Kasich for purely selfish reasons wants to deny them that. What can be done about such contemptible behavior?
[dcquiz] The party surely must have something to say about this. Here is one possible scenario: a delegation of senior party figures should meet with Kasich, immediately. They should ask him to explain why he is staying in the race when he no longer has any chance of winning the nomination and his continuing presence seriously distorts the important choice now being made. After party leaders have listened to and considered Kasich’s explanation of what he thinks he is doing, they should render their verdict and tell him what that is. Unless he has convinced them that he has acceptable reasons for what he is doing (highly unlikely) they should tell him to get out of the race for the good of the party and the country. If he refuses, they have a number of possible remedies. They could issue a public statement giving their version of what happened at the meeting, which would be highly embarrassing to Kasich. They could send a message to Republican voters that it would be in the best interests of the party to ignore Kasich and concentrate on making the choice between Trump and Cruz. They could issue a statement directly condemning Kasich for his irresponsibility. They could even ask the Republican National Committee to consider a motion of censure, something that Kasich could not risk since it would end his chances of the VP nomination.
What the party cannot do is do nothing when its nominating process is being abused. It is precisely the passivity and inarticulateness of the GOP leadership that has led to the anti-establishment mood of GOP voters. Intelligent and forceful handling of a highly damaging situation could be a first step in restoring confidence in the party. When a supremely important decision is being distorted by a completely trivial issue, the party cannot be silent.
John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars.