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02.19.16 10:26 AM ET

When Kasich Was a 'Cocky' Conservative Who Tried To Stop George W. Bush

John Kasich may be running in the establishment lane in 2016, but that just shows how radicalized the Republican Party has become.

The year was 1999. The euro came into existence; “No Scrubs” and “…Baby One More Time” led the Billboard charts; the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton; and, less remarked upon, John Kasich quickly began and ended his first presidential campaign.

Then, to the extent that he was known at all, it was for being a “hyperactive” and “cocky” member of Congress from Ohio who chaired the Budget Committee and had once been kicked offstage at a Grateful Dead concert at RFK Stadium. As a tribute to AC/DC, he billed his 1999 tour of Iowa “Back In Black.”

He was dubbed the “Rock n’ Roll Republican.”

One thing he wasn’t labeled, however, was a moderate. In 1990, the American Conservative Union gave Kasich a score of 100, the highest possible, in its ranking of Republican members of Congress. He so opposed President Bill Clinton’s first budget, in 1993, that he taunted if it did work, he’d “have to become a Democrat.” He was a shepherd of the Republican Revolution and he chaired the Budget Committee during the 1996 government shutdown, which he supported. The budget he ultimately helped craft, the following year, which Clinton signed, cut capital gains and estate taxes and reduced Medicare and Medicaid by $115 billion and $13 billion, respectively.

Sixteen years later, Kasich, now the governor of Ohio, is again seeking the Republican nomination, but this time he occupies a different space, or “lane” in newfangled political jargon, in the Party.

In 2016, everybody in Republican politics must have a lane which he can call his own and market his candidacy from. On Thursday in Clemson, South Carolina, two days before the primary here, Kasich himself admitted to a preoccupation with the idea of lanes. “They try to say there’s two lanes,” he said at a town hall, “there’s the establishment lane and the anti-establishment lane.” But about a month ago, he said, a journalist told him there was clearly a third lane: a “Kasich” lane. “What is a Kasich lane?” Kasich asked, “a Kasich lane is somebody who’s never been in favor of the establishment. You know who else was never in the establishment lane? Ronald Reagan.”

In reality, no such lane exists. Kasich, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, has chosen to run in the “moderate” lane, which is another way of saying the candidates have made it a point to not act like they have rabies.

And whether or not they are actually moderate doesn’t much matter.

In The Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination by Henry Olsen and Dante J. Scala, “moderate-liberal” Republican voters are defined as favoring politicians who are more secular than their evangelical counterparts and not especially fiscally conservative, like John McCain or Mitt Romney.

Kasich, whose faith and austere penny-pinching policies are the core of his stump speech, checks neither of those boxes. Neither, really, do Bush or Rubio.

Nevermind that no one who actually knows Kasich thinks he’s a moderate. I asked former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Ohio Attorney General and longtime friend of Kasich’s Mike DeWine and former Ohio Congressman David Hobson, who worked on Kasich’s 2000 bid, if they thought the word applied to the candidate. They all rejected it.

Ohio Democrats are eager to bullet point the reasons they find the label “frustrating”: he waged a Scott Walker-inspired war on public sector unions (knocked down in a voter referendum); his anti-choice measures have been so extreme that the number of surgical abortion providers in the state has declined from fourteen to eight since 2013; he has suggested privatizing Social Security; he favors an interventionist foreign policy; and since he took office, funding for public education has decreased by half a billion dollars while Ohio public schools have gone from being ranked 5th in the nation to 23rd.

On the other hand, he acknowledges the existence of climate change and once attended a gay wedding.

But in the presidential race, what you decide to market yourself as matters more than what you really are. Disclosing actual information—like a record or beliefs—tends to be an annoying and messy endeavor that most candidates would be best served to avoid.

And the Kasich campaign, unlike the departed Chris Christie campaign, has calculated that appearing moderate is a smarter strategy than trying to outdo Ted Cruz, a very conservative evangelical, or Donald Trump, a bigoted populist. Kasich is as conservative in 2016 as he ever was, but it’s harder to look like a conservative now, sandwiched on a stage between those two.

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“This is nuts!” Kasich remarked at the last Republican debate. It may as well be his slogan.

In 1999, Kasich’s own nuttiness was more central to his message. Kasich was cut from the same cloth as the uncool conservatives like Gingrich, but his presidential campaign was predicated on the idea that he could create his own “lane,” though no one used the term then: a lane for a relatively young and hip Republican with staunch conservative principles and a propensity for flame-throwing in the House. Maybe he’d rush the nearest stage!

“I love to be on the cutting edge,” he said at the time, “I’m a cutting-edge kind of guy.”  

On the trail he would ask voters questions: “Do you like grunge?” or “Do you like Pearl Jam?”

In New Hampshire, according to a 1999 report in The San-Francisco Chronicle, he told a group of prospective volunteers, “If you don’t want to have fun, go somewhere else. Go work for one of those other fuddy-duddies, because we may have to go get a beer every once in a while.”

On February 15, 1999, Kasich launched an exploratory committee. He would never formally announce, though he hired more than a dozen staff members in Washington, New Hampshire and Iowa and secured office space in the Fairchild building, walking distance from his Longworth Congressional office.  

Hobson, who was in Congress at the time, remembered it as a cramped space where fellow Budget Committee members like Bob Franks and Pete Hoekstra, advisers to the exploratory committee, filed in to help their friend. It was fun, he told me, but they were naive—and worse, broke.

The campaign went out with a decidedly not very rock n’ roll whimper on July 14, just five months after it began. Kasich endorsed George W. Bush, who was more of a country guy himself.

Two presidents have (nearly) served two terms since then, and although Kasich has calmed down a bit—except, on primary night in New Hampshire, when he told the crowd, “if you don’t have a seat belt, go get one!”—he’s mostly stayed the same.

It’s the Republican Party that’s changed, its base radicalized, first by the rise of the Tea Party and now, for a smaller faction, by the rise of Trump.

In 2011, in a speech at Mount Vernon, Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader from 1995 to 2003 and one of the architects of the Contract With America, remembered Kasich as the “linchpin” of the Republican Revolution and decried the evolution of the GOP.

“What happened to the Republican majority of days past?” he said, “well, it went to hell in a hand-basket and largely was rejected by the American people.”

Kasich, he said, “held us together, and the whole thing started to unravel when Kasich left.”

The shift could be seen clear as day when Kasich appeared on Fox News to discuss his endorsement from  The New York Times. He said he thought it was “really awesome,” which seemed to confuse host Neil Cavuto. Reading the endorsement, Cavuto said, he realized something: “You’re not anti-government...So explain that to some conservatives who might be rattled.”

Kasich deflected, talking instead about his time on the Budget Committee.