BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
We have been at this politics thing for a good long time now, and we can't remember the last politician who talked about "heart" and "soul."
In fact, we could probably count on both hands the ones who we thought had them.
John Kasich, the Ohio Republican who wields enormous power as the House Budget Committee chairman, talks about these things a lot. Heart. Soul. Spirit.
He can talk, too, at great length, about more wonkish things; he carries enormous numbers around in his head and can spit out obscure federal budget minutiae until you beg for mercy.
But this 46-year-old Republican wants to be the next president of the United States, and he knows that almost never happens to a national political figure who talks about nothing but mark-ups and conference committee reports.
What this one wants to do is inspire, something few Republican politicians at the national level have been good at.
One can look around the enormous field of potential GOP presidential candidates and find little that is inspiring, or even interesting. There is Newt Gingrich, lecturing like the junior college professor that he is; there is Dan Quayle, who would first have to convince much of the electorate that he is not stupid.
There is not much in the way of soaring rhetoric out there; people fall asleep just looking at Steve Forbes, and as for George W. Bush, that apple has not fallen far from the tree when it comes to inspirational speech.
But what these fellows have that John Kasich does not is near universal name recognition. People know them.
It is hard to believe that there are so many people out there, even in his home state of Ohio, who do not know who John Kasich is. During the budget battles with the Clinton administration in 1995 and 1996, he was a fixture on the Sunday morning talk shows. He was the one the Republicans put out front, because, unlike the speaker, he had an ingratiating way about him that people liked.
Senior citizens liked him because he seemed like such a nice young man; people of his own generation responded to him because he had this aura of hipness, like he knew that U2 was something other than a spy plane.
Last week, Mr. Kasich came to Cincinnati, to help out his friend Steve Chabot, and dove straight into the belly of old-fashioned, hard-nosed conservative Republicanism -- Delhi Township.
At a "town meeting" with Mr. Chabot at the Delhi Senior Center, Mr. Kasich stood and listened as a string of voters, mostly seniors, marched to the microphone and kvetched about everything they could think of -- Social Security, Medicare, "pork barrel politics," and that old vein-popping Republican favorite, Why in the Sam Hill are my tax dollars going to foreign aid?
The congressman from Columbus tried to pour oil on the troubled waters of Delhi.
"Wait a minute, folks," he said, trying out some lines that would be heard 1,000 times in places like New Hampshire and Iowa for the next two years.
What, he asked, do we really have to complain about? "We've got a balanced budget for the first time since man went to the moon; we're looking at a budget surplus of probably $50 billion; people are working; and the economy is humming."
What we should be worrying about, he suggested, "is how we can help each other. Not government. Each of us, individually. We have to look to what is in our hearts. After all, we were put here on this earth to serve others. If we don't, we lose our spirit."
One could see the mood in the hall soften a little after that; it is a little hard to turn beet-red and start chewing the furniture when someone is talking to you about your soul.
Whatever it was, it seemed to strike a chord with the people of Delhi; the crowd quieted down, and he left the hall to big applause. Maybe they were just stunned to hear a politician talk that way. We have a feeling Mr. Kasich hopes they were.
Howard Wilkinson's column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388. E-mail: email@example.com.
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