At times during the first GOP debate on Thursday night, it was hard to tell who was talking: Pope Francis or Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“We need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have,” the second-term governor, an Anglican, said. “God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”
Recent polling suggests that practicing and preaching Pope Francis politics works. Kasich apparently got the memo. His inclusive and conciliatory language Thursday night stood in stark contrast to that of many of his rivals, most notably, Donald Trump. Pope Francis has called for us to build bridges to make a home for immigrants and the excluded, yet Trump communicated a different idea: “We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly.”
It isn’t just Kasich’s words that connected him with the 78-year-old Bishop of Rome. Kasich’s policy decisions during the past five years have reflected the pope’s plea that politicians be “genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.” Most noteworthy was the governor’s courageous decision to break with his Republican colleagues and support Medicaid expansion in the state of Ohio. When conservatives pushed back on his decision, Kasich asked his fellow Republicans to understand that poverty is real. “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
Pope Francis would most certainly agree. He has derided trickle-down economic systems that cut social programs as having a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power,” and has lamented that “the excluded are still waiting.”
Kasich’s performance Thursday night was reminiscent of the George W. Bush era of “compassionate conservatism.” Bush defined this governing philosophy in simple terms: “It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results.” The philosophy proved successful for Bush. But can Kasich follow suit?
Kasich’s campaign got off to a rocky start. One of President Barack Obama’s former senior advisors called his long-winded announcement that he was running for president “a great advertisement for speechwriters and Teleprompters.” Some, including John McCain, have also complained about Kasich’s temper. These are all valid concerns. But Kasich’s performance last night might be able jumpstart his underdog primary campaign.
In an interview earlier this year, Kasich revealed that he really does understand Francis:
If this is the message Kasich takes into 2016, he might be back in Cleveland again next summer for the convention as the GOP nominee for president.