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John Kasich's Dream

In the dim half-basement of a split-level ranch house, a man dreams of simpler times

Why is he still here? What does he think is going to happen? When John Kasich lays himself down to bed at night and dreams fitfully of November 7, 2016, what is he seeing? He's won only a single state in the Republican primaries — his own. He has fewer delegates than Marco Rubio, who three weeks ago dropped out sputtering and dejected and quoting 1 Chronicles. There can't possibly be a savory plan here. There is no way in hell that John Kasich sleeps and has honorable dreams.

Here's the most viable scenario for John Kasich to become president of these United States.

[Exterior, back alley, flickering light above a dive bar stoop, sticky July heat, mosquitoes. Enter Donald Trump, stage left. Enter Ted Cruz, stage right.]

"Hey, Ted, teeny tiny little Ted: You want to know how we settled fights in Queens?"

"You know what, Donald? I spent some time in Texas and I wear Wrangler shirts and pretend that's not an affectation, so yes, I do want to know how you settled fights in Queens."

[Two shots in such quick succession they sound like one shot — then cut the house lights.]

That's the only thing John Kasich can possibly be dreaming of, with his 143 delegates and his stiltedly sunny fake centrism that Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have both already demonstrated does not fly in 2016 America. Rubio tried optimism, Bush tried centrism, and they were both trampled underfoot by Trump. It failed spectacularly when they did it, and Kasich isn’t demonstrably better at it.

He’s only here because he’s expecting fire and brimstone at the GOP convention come July. That's why his name was somehow on the exit poll graphics after his walk-on cameo in the Wisconsin primary. That's why Donald Trump is so pissed off, that he’s even referring to himself in the third person without even pretending to be cute about it while telling the guy to drop out. Trump thinks his votes are getting stolen.

But Kasich didn't necessarily take Trump's votes. It's pretty easy to imagine a world where you're a Republican and you vote for John Kasich entirely because Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in equal measure do not wash as presidential material. Donald Trump has the charisma of a pit boss and Ted Cruz sounds like he learned how to speak by miming along to episodes of The 700 Club. They are shockingly unlikable.

John Kasich is unlikable too, of course, but he's not shockingly anything. He's professionally boring, all his edges machined off by a career in conventional “I have a secretary and do not know what Twitter is” politics, by perpetual dedication to being a round peg in a round hole from job to job. He’s been kicking around the rackets forever, as a very boring congressman and again as a very boring governor. He's so boring he worked for Lehman Brothers and chaired the House Budget Committee. He’s got the branding necessary to prove he's a conservative’s conservative for the over-50 set, having hosted a show on Fox News for half a decade. He’s got all the old credentials to become president under the old system.

These things he sells, with a well-honed "I used to coach flag football and I have a Mustang that always needs a few hundred bucks thrown at it and sometimes I take it out to the lake on weekends when the kids aren't over" persona. This he peppers liberally with a "guy who knows so much about the CIA he never calls it the CIA, he calls it Langley" air of authority, like his den contains pictures of him with his two-beers-chummy arm around Oliver North. He’s got the confidence of a guy who knows this gambit has worked for decades and the hard-sighing annoyance of a guy physically unable to comprehend why the launch codes aren’t turning the keys in his silo anymore. He's what those guys you see on boats in Viagra commercials think a president should look like.

That doesn't work in the world we're in now. It'll never become a realistic dream, but as the specter of a contested convention looms, it's getting less laughable. If every single thing goes to hell, he has the old-guard credentials the party will need. It works in John Kasich's dream-logic, in his reverie where the Republican party has to rebuild from cinder blocks and charred card tables and a vague notion of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 reconstructed from notes on a legal pad found pinned under a destroyed cop car.