The theme of the first night of the Democratic national convention was one that has gripped the intelligentsia more than the public: the unique authoritarian threat posed by Donald Trump. It was a point made most explicitly by Bernie Sanders. And it was made implicitly, and most controversially, by Republican John Kasich.
The presence of Kasich in a prime-time slot at the DNC has been the subject of considerable agitation on the left. The former Ohio governor is an interesting and complex figure. I wrote some extremely harsh columns about Kasich in the 1990s, when his career seemed designed to use his earnest persona and working-class roots as nothing more than a guise to sell a plutocratic agenda.
But Kasich evolved, at least a little. As governor of Ohio, he broke ranks to accept the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare at a time when his party was still committed to destroying the law. And he infuriated conservatives by justifying the decision not only on fiscal grounds — why turn away free money from Washington just because Obama passed it? — but also on moral grounds, implying, correctly, that other Republicans were willing, or even eager, to let the poor suffer and die to spite a Democratic president.
One argument against featuring Kasich is that he opposes many Democratic Party principles, especially on abortion. Of course, politics requires getting votes from people who disagree with you on some things. There aren’t enough people in America who share every major Democratic party line to form a majority. (Of course, there aren’t enough party-line Republican voters, either.)
The second argument is that figures like Kasich don’t bring any credibility with voters. “These Republican validators will be uniformly white and overwhelmingly male, and they will bring with them no voting blocs,” argues Mystal.
It would obviously be an exaggeration to say a Kasich speaking slot locks up millions of voters. Conventions can only do so much. Most undecided voters don’t watch them. But they do absorb at least some news coverage, and to the extent that coverage emphasizes Kasich’s testimony that Republicans should reject Trump and trust Biden, it’s meaningful. Lots of voters in the middle don’t follow politics closely, and the use simple heuristics like “Even voters in the other party like this candidate” help them make sense of their decision.
It’s notable that many of the same critics who are skeptical that a Kasich endorsement of Biden can attract voters in the center were also skeptical that Biden could attract any voters in the center. The left spent much of the primary insisting either that “electability” was a myth or that the most important element of electability was motivating left wingers. And yet Biden’s campaign has done exactly what Biden thought it would: win over moderates and persuadable Republicans. His lead over Trump is built on a dominating advantage among college-educated white voters. If there’s any constituency that can be reassured by the seal of approval of Republicans, it’s them.
The larger moral purpose in Kasich’s endorsement is the imperative to put aside policy goals for the objective of stopping an unfit and dangerous aspiring dictator. It is because Kasich does not stand to gain from Biden’s election — his agenda would be harmed, while Sanders’s would be incrementally advanced — is a testament to his willingness to sacrifice something to save American democracy.
Of all the first night speakers, Sanders grasped the stakes most clearly, promising, “I will work with progressives, with moderates, and yes, with conservatives, to preserve this nation from a threat that … our heroes fought and died to defeat.” Bernie understands what many of his supporters fail to see.