By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
John Kasich’s father was a postman in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. The son had remarkable ambition. When he was a freshman at Ohio State, he arranged a meeting with the college president and, when he discovered that the man had an upcoming audience in the Oval Office, asked him to carry a letter to Nixon. Soon, Kasich himself had a meeting with Nixon. This was December, 1970, around the time that Nixon was telling Bob Haldeman how badly he wanted the squares from Ohio State to destroy the hippies from Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Kasich must have seemed like his kind of square; the President might even have recognized a version of himself. The young man was soon making more connections. He became the youngest person ever elected to the Ohio State Senate; he was seated in Congress before his tenth college reunion.
This Tuesday, forty-five years after he met Nixon, Kasich, the governor of Ohio and a Republican candidate for President, appeared at Franklin Pierce University, in New Hampshire, a school with many “second-chance and first-generation” students, as Andrew Card, the university’s president, who served six years as the White House chief of staff under George W. Bush, put it to me. There may have been some other children of postmen in the audience. Kasich’s prospects seem dim now, everywhere except for in New Hampshire, which he has focussed on from the start. A week and a half before the primary, he holds most of the important newspaper endorsements and a surprisingly strong position, second or third, in most of the polls.
On the stump, Kasich normally aims for gruff, but he arrived at Franklin Pierce in an advice-giving mood. He moved toward the nearest student, microphone in hand. “You know you were made special, do you know that?” he said, gently. “There is no one else in the world like you.” He advised his listeners to ignore their social status and know that they had something to contribute to the world. He did not mention the story about Nixon, but he did point out Card and advise the students to seek him out. The college president, Kasich said, could offer them “connections.” Then he walked back to the center of the room and began his stump speech.
The reputation of the Republican establishment, of the politically influential and the businessmen who back them, has been in bad decline. But Kasich is an enthusiast for the establishment’s mores, and an exhibitor of its personnel. With him at Card’s college were Mike DeWine, who served two terms in the Senate, and John Sununu, who served one term there and whose father was George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff. He seemed to like having them around. A woman asked him what he thought about a plan for tax credits to fuel small-dollar political donations. “Whaddya think, Ted?” Kasich called out to a man at the back. “Small-dollar donations?” Ted looked ambivalent.
Part of what Kasich offers as a candidate is an instinct to compromise—he speaks proudly of a deal he helped cut with President Clinton to reduce the budget—but another part is the promise of wise men in a room. At Franklin Pierce, he said that he was sure that human beings had contributed to climate change, but he wasn’t sure how much, and suggested that, as President, he would select a group of leaders to pinpoint what to do. As governor, he said, he has always insisted on appointing people who will not “put their finger on the scale.” At the Republican debate in Des Moines, two days later, he was asked about whether the F.B.I. should have a back door into encrypted communications. “It’s best not to talk about back doors and encryption,” Kasich said. “It needs to be solved in the situation room of the White House, with the technology folks.”
The problem of social ascent is everywhere in this election. But Kasich runs into it more frequently than anyone else does. To see him campaigning with his phalanx of insiders prompts the same kinds of questions that Megyn Kelly asked on the debate stage. Who are those folks in the room, anyway, and how did they get there?
A few years ago, a doctoral student in sociology at Harvard named Lauren Rivera set out to study the membership process of the American business élite. Rivera had gone to Princeton and done a stint at the Monitor Group, a consulting firm, so part of her motivation was curiosity about her own tribe. But she was also interested in how the most prestigious banks, consultancies, and law firms were responding to pressures to make their companies more racially and culturally diverse. Rivera embedded with corporate recruiters working élite campuses, interviewed the partners, canvassed the applicants. She found that even when the members of firm’s leadership were looking for diversity, they were drawn to candidates whose experiences mostly matched their own. Investment banks were thrilled to find an African-American candidate they wanted to hire, but she was more likely to be a Princeton midfielder than the valedictorian at Spelman. The process could involve some psychological projection. “Perhaps tellingly,” Rivera wrote, in “Pedigree,” the book that came out of this research, “many white evaluators pronounced my name ‘Riviera,’ like the posh coastal areas of Europe, rather than Rivera.”
Recruiters, Rivera found, tended to have an exceptionally narrow idea of what qualified a candidate as élite. One partner told her, “Someone will show up and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School], but I am an engineer at MIT and I heard about this fair, and I wanted to come and meet you in New York.’ God bless him for the effort, but it’s just not going to work.” When recruiters considered a candidate beyond an exceptionally small group of élite schools, it was often because the candidate had a personal connection with someone at the firm, and those candidates “were almost exclusively white and from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds.” One of Rivera’s conclusions was that the system of selection in these firms was not what we would call a meritocracy but rather something more confined and particular: a system of individual sponsorship, in which the élites hand-pick their successors.
When people lose faith in the systems that determine who enters powerful rooms, they tend to have less confidence in the decisions made there. At Franklin Pierce, Kasich told a voter that the response to inequality was not to raise taxes but to encourage workers to develop more skills. A middle-aged woman stood up in the crowd, sounding astonished, and asked if Kasich was “seriously suggesting” that; even for people she knew with master’s degrees, she said, it could be hard to find work. Kasich suggested that maybe their degrees were of the wrong kind, or simply wrong for the region. Maybe they needed to move.
New Hampshire is an interesting staging ground for a campaign like Kasich’s. For all the independent, truculent reputation of the hills, the state’s population is concentrated in the southeastern part of the state, in the middle-class outer suburbs of Boston. This is variable emotional geography, on the fringes of an exceptionally prosperous place, fertile soil for either complacence or resentment.
The Boston Globe endorsed Kasich in New Hampshire last week, as the best candidate in what it called the Republican primary’s “sanity bracket,” so perhaps he will find some success in the state. But in this season, the idea of the technocratic businessman—which moved, at times, through Bush’s campaigns and emphatically through Romney’s—has mostly given way to the cult of Trump’s personality. It makes a certain amount of sense that Kasich, for whom the old system had meant so much, would be among the politicians left holding on the field. It makes sense, too, that he would find his greatest resonance within driving distance of Bowdoin and Amherst—in those places where it is still not crazy to think that an important person might look down and see his image in you.