In his speech announcing that he was entering the Republican presidential primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a surprising stance on American foreign policy — and hardly anyone has noticed.
Kasich's position is not one that's going to earn him a lot of airtime on CNN. It is not red meat to the Republican base (or the Democratic base, for that matter). It is not a position that's very popular with voters or with donors. But it's an important point, and one that politicians don't make nearly enough: The threats to Americans, while real, are overhyped.
"It was sort of a bolt from the blue for me," Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says. "I had never heard Kasich say things like this before."
Here's the governor:
We pick up the paper, it's Chattanooga, it's Fort Hood, it's ISIS. Are we safe? Are we going to be safe to go to the mall or safe to leave our homes?
These are the worries that many Americans have, but I have to tell you as serious as these are — and they are very serious — we've had a lot worse, much worse in this country. Think about it. The Civil War, do you remember reading about it? It's not just neighbors fighting against neighbors, but it was even family members—kin fighting against one another and killing one another on a battlefield right in America.
Kasich is pushing against the conventional wisdom that American is facing more threats than ever before. Everyone from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey to Sen. John McCain has said it; presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio have made it a central premise.
But the hype can be out of step with the reality. Terrorism, often cited as the greatest threat to America today, kills about as many Americans as furniture. Obviously that number is so low in part because we take the threat of terrorism so seriously, but it also goes to show that maybe the danger is not as existential as it sometimes feels.
Admitting this is politically difficult: It requires telling voters something they don't want to hear, and inviting fights with other politicians who depend on threat inflation to look tough. But it's important. Exaggerating threats doesn't just scare people, it makes the country more likely to counterproductively lash out against phantom threats — as it did, for example, in Iraq.
Kasich asked his audience to compare the threats with the world wars, "where many in our families never came home, leaving widows and children without a dad."
He went on to talk about how even the worst threats are not existential, and about America's ability to rise above:
And you all remember that crystal clear morning and the horror we felt on 9/11. But guess what? We've always gotten through it because the testing is what makes you stronger. It's the challenges that make you better. I have lived through them and I have become stronger for them and America has become stronger for them and here is how we've done it — by staying together. Not by dividing each other, but by staying together with our eyes on the horizon, with our eyes on the horizon about the future.
Kasich's policy positions, alas, do not always line up with his rhetoric here. He's been calling for the US to send ground troops to fight ISIS since at least February — a rather drastic and high-risk move that's out of step with his speech here.
"I can't explain what Kasich was up to here," Logan says. "Maybe he's already harbored these views. Maybe he thinks in a field this size he needs to differentiate himself. Maybe his speechwriter got a little frisky and Kasich wasn't really paying attention because he knows he can't win."
Still, Kasich's efforts to put threats to America in historical perspective stand out in a GOP field increasingly panicked by exaggerated threats — even if he is really unlikely to bring the rest of the party on to his way of thinking. "I'd celebrate," Logan concludes, "if I could convince myself it represented anything relevant."