And I do mean “noted.” With the possible exception of Steve Schmidt, no Republican advisor is better known to the right for sneering at the right than John Weaver. Re-read this old post, written when Weaver was helping to steer Huntsman 2012 to a third-place flameout in New Hampshire, for some of his greatest hits. He advised McCain in 2000, when Maverick was at his media-friendly right-baiting zenith, then caught on with Huntsman during the last cycle to try the ol’ what-our-party-really-needs-is-a-better-base approach again. He’s known for being a difficult boss, losing lots of races (with some notable successes, like Rick Snyder’s gubernatorial win, mixed in), and saying things to reporters like, “There’s a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party. No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” Here’s a bon mot from two years ago in which Weaver lamented the demise of compassionate conservatism and feared that the crappy Gang of Eight immigration bill might be doomed:
“We’re not finished committing suicide here,” said Republican strategist John Weaver, a veteran of the McCain and Huntsman campaigns. “We also have the opportunity to kill immigration reform, and the odds are that we will do that, just to make sure we’re the angry-white-man party.” He says the party may need a George McGovern-sized defeat with a candidate like Ted Cruz before it chooses another path.
That’s the sort of soundbite he’s famous for. And that’s why conservatives in Iowa are scratching their heads.
Ohio governor John Kasich has yet to enter the presidential race, but his reported talks with Republican strategist John Weaver, even before the Washington Post reported Tuesday that he would serve as a senior strategist for the campaign, were already raising some eyebrows…
“Perception is reality,” said one Iowa political consultant. “If that’s his first hire, then yeah. It’s not going to speak well, and news of that will spread quickly” from people who are familiar with [Weaver’s] record of skipping the Hawkeye State…
“It sends the wrong signal. You may see the bat signal in the sky, and you may not know where Batman’s going but you know there’s trouble somewhere. And this would just be a giant bat signal that he’s not going to aggressively compete in Iowa,” the consultant added.
Kasich isn’t going to skip Iowa. Most of his appeal lies in the fact that he’s from a midwestern swing state; if an Ohioan can’t play in Iowa, he’s a joke. Even so, the question remains — why would Kasich risk alienating righties before he’s officially in the race by recruiting one of their sworn enemies? It’s no accident, I’m sure, that Weaver hadn’t been snapped up by any rival campaigns, yet somehow Kasich thought it’d be a good idea to make him his first splashy hire. How come?
Two theories. One, per Jonathan Chait: Kasich knows he has virtually no shot at the nomination but he relishes the chance to speak centrist-y “truth” to conservative power, making him a perfect candidate for an advisor like Weaver. Remember, Kasich is the guy who defended his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio by asking critics what they plan on saying to St. Peter when he asks them what they ever did for the poor. If you want a candidate who disdains the base but is willing to downplay it enough to make him kinda sorta viable, you’ve got Jeb Bush. If you want a candidate who so admires himself as some sort of plainspoken “voice of reason” that he’s willing to enthusiastically antagonize the party’s core supporters, you’ve got Kasich. All of which is a fine theory for a liberal like Chait, who himself relishes the thought of centrist Republicans dumping on tea partiers, but it defies belief to think Kasich would risk the aggravation of a presidential campaign for no reward greater than a wrestling match with the right. He’s getting in because Jeb looks weak, the electoral share needed to win each primary will be small given how splintered the field is, and a good showing even in defeat is apt to move him further up the VP shortlist for someone. There’s got to be another explanation.
Theory two: Hiring Weaver is a signal by Kasich to the donor class that he hates the right as much as they do and isn’t afraid to show it. It’s a risk given how much the base loathes Weaver back, but it’s a risk Kasich feels he has no choice but to take. He’s getting in late, competition for the monied center-right is fierce, and Jeb already has a huge war chest. Kasich needs to give establishmentarians, who spent many millions defending incumbents from the tea-party hordes in the midterms last year, a reason to think he’ll be even more of a bulwark against them than Bush would be. Just as Marco Rubio quietly touts his record on amnesty to big donors to show them how he’s willing to confront the right on key issues, Kasich is probably touting his new hire to show them that he’s more confrontational than anyone. He can’t out-Cruz Ted Cruz to win tea partiers but he might be able to out-Bush Jeb Bush among moderates if Bush continues to underperform. And if it doesn’t work, hey: He’ll have the thanks of an admiring right-hating media as well as the comfort of knowing that he made a lot of Republican consultants even richer than they already were.