The real story of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary is that America’s newest Happy Warrior was born, one with the potential to transform this election year.
Yes, the popular and pungent narrative of U.S. decline got its biggest boost to date with the overwhelming victories of Donald Trump and Bernard Sanders — though far apart on policy, Trump and Sanders are flip sides of the same coin of outrage.
Yet the most long-lasting news of the night may well be the dramatic second-place finish by Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Left for dead by the media and others long ago, he doggedly kept running his own race. Appearing at more than 100 town halls in New Hampshire, he stuck to his core message of economic revival. And, just as importantly, he stayed positive. “We never went negative because we have more good to sell,” Kasich said in his speech Tuesday night.
In a political year notable for its anti-establishment rhetoric from both parties, Kasich offered a dramatic counternarrative: “Tonight the light overcame the darkness.” Kasich’s speech was as much spiritual as political. “We’re all made to help the healing of the world, if we would just slow down.”
Of course, skepticism about Kasich hasn’t abated. Already, political operatives are full of reasons for why he can’t get much further — not enough money raised, too much a part of the establishment, not conservative enough and too, well, Midwestern.
Indeed, even Kasich himself may not yet see the promised land of the White House — he’ll have to show more broad geographic and demographic appeal for such a possibility to seem real. But it’s clear that he accomplished something huge in New Hampshire. Like a trail scout way ahead of the main party, he created an opening, and showed a way forward for other candidates who have been stymied so far in their attempts to best Trump and Sanders.
The most immediate beneficiary of Kasich should be Jeb Bush. The former governor of Florida, already showing a new feistiness that refuted Donald Trump’s “low energy” label, is finding his footing with a far more sunny strategy than that of Trump and Ted Cruz. Bush, like Kasich, hasn’t been embarrassed to talk about his experience in government in making his case, and the voters responded in New Hampshire. Seeing the traction Kasich gained, candidates with government records will now likely be more emboldened to use them well.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is searching for a new formulation after her drubbing at the hands of Bernie Sanders. Her campaign has flagged because of its lack of a concise message, and under the weight of the candidate’s baggage (private emails, Goldman Sachs speeches, and more). But if Clinton can take a leaf from Kasich’s playbook and build a more compact, positive story that works, those liabilities could still melt away. Remember, she has formidable assets and experience, and could see rapid success in a disciplined, more optimistic repackaging.
So while Trump and Sanders racked up big wins, and spoke to crowds of hundreds and even thousands in New Hampshire, it is arguably Kasich’s message that will resonate with more voters in the long run. He took a road less traveled, and his “For Us” trips went over and over New Hampshire, even if they reached less than a dozen people at a time. When he spoke to about 40 people at a Manchester law firm a few weeks ago, his message was typical for him: “I don’t really care much about politics,” he said. “Give everyone a chance, open your heart to everybody.”
That was the message of the “Happy Warrior,” a term coined in the “Character of the Happy Warrior” by English poet William Wordsworth:
Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn …
Of course, not every state will offer Kasich the chance to deliver his message face-to-face. But the Ohio governor is tapping into a significant line of American politics. Hubert Humphrey, the long-time Minnesota senator and loser to Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race, was the best known “happy warrior” of modern American politics. Humphrey never made it to the pinnacle of American politics, but he did become vice president, and was an influential touchstone of Democratic politics who inspired many others. Before him, Franklin D. Roosevelt used the label in nominating Al Smith for president in 1924, and Grover Cleveland was so enamored with the poem and its image that he asked for it to be read at his funeral.
So, the Happy Warrior is a powerful image, embodying America’s optimism and determination. And in a winter where the political front-runners, Trump and Sanders, have painted pictures of so much darkness, the emerging Kasich brightness could jump-start something that reaches far beyond him.