From The Wall Street Journal
Ohio hasn’t voted for a presidential loser since 1960 and it may decide the 2016 election, at least if the winner is a Republican: The GOP probably can’t make the Electoral College arithmetic work otherwise, and no Republican ever has won without carrying the swing state. The sitting two-term governor of Ohio also happens to be running for the White House—but he says, “You know what my rival is? Obscurity. Nobody knows me.” This is strange.
John Kasich is also the rare candidate-governor who remains popular among voters at home; Quinnipiac puts his job approval at 62%, his highest ever. He has a strong governing record, national experience and bipartisan appeal. On paper, he’s formidable. And yet Mr. Kasich is polling nationally in eighth place, at 2%, according to the Real Clear Politics average, and he’s fifth in New Hampshire at 7%, having slipped from 13% this summer. So why hasn’t he broken out of the Republican scrum?
That’s the one question that defines this anti-orthodox primary season—and not merely for Mr. Kasich. “I do think that the electorate, no question, is extremely frustrated, and they don’t want the same old, same old,” says the governor, who dropped by the Journal this week. “But if you get on an airplane, do you want somebody that’s never flown a plane before?”
So what to make of the Donald J. Trump phenomenon? “I don’t think it has any depth to it,” Mr. Kasich says. “It’s sort of like if your football team hasn’t won a game, they’re 0 and 6 or they’re 1 and 7, and you go to the game, and you’re sitting there with your buddy, and you say, ‘I think they ought to just pick that guy out of the stands. Our quarterback is a bum.’ ” He could be talking about the Cleveland Browns.
“I think, I believe, maybe I’m wrong, that experience and a record are going to matter at the end,” he continues. “Maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll change 100 years of American politics. I don’t know.”
By the way, Mr. Kasich adds, “I am just talking to you realistically about how you win. You come into Ohio yelling and screaming, you can’t win. You will not win Ohio. I mean, I know Ohio. I won 86 out of 88 counties. I had 26% of the African-American vote, 51% of union households—and I started off in a war with the unions, right?”
Mr. Kasich served in the House for 18 years, six as chairman of the Budget Committee, where he was the architect of the 1997 balanced-budget agreement between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich
. “We would not have balanced the budget without his leadership,” the former speaker writes in an email. Mr. Gingrich adds that he regards Mr. Kasich as one of the four “Republican visionaries” of the 20th century, in the company of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Mr. Gingrich.
Since he re-emerged as governor in 2010, Mr. Kasich is one of the livelier characters of American politics, and one of the few who retains the capacity to surprise. His far-ranging, free associative and sometimes undisciplined talk often doesn’t stop until he’s interrupted.
When Mr. Kasich announced his presidential candidacy in July, he began by joking about the delivery of his twin daughters: He said the obstetrician told him: “Can you shut up? I’m a little busy right now.”
He then riffed—this is a partial list—on “this whole business of the American dream,” Iwo Jima, his father “John the Mailman,” a boat trip to England from Belgium, Islamic State, coal mining, “the Civil War—you remember reading about it?,” recreational narcotics (opposed), John Sununu, Ohio Stadium, a balanced-budget amendment and “the power of very big ideas”—as well as “two wonderful African-American fellows” he met at a Wendy’s, something called the Common Sense Initiative and, finally, “the Lord,” who “will record what you’ve done for another in the book of life.”
This manic energy is physical as well as intellectual. Mr. Kasich’s personal-space perimeter requires four or five extra feet than normal to accommodate the gestures, the sweeps, the waves, the pirouettes. He’s a human windmill.
Mr. Kasich is trying to merge traditional conservative economics with his social gospel. “I’m the hardest person to beat,” he says, “because I’m the hardest person to label.” He frequently speaks of the homeless, the mentally ill and the sick, of drug addicts and ex-cons, of “people living in the shadows.” He challenges Republicans to show sympathy for Americans who aren’t like them, especially the poor and minorities. “If you look at the record,” he says, “the record is loud and clear about who I am, and what I believe, and what my values are, and the conservative nature of how I’ve solved problems.”
As Mr. Kasich tells it, “because I care about these programs”—to combat substance abuse, for instance—“it just sends a message, and it’s inadvertent. I didn’t do this to do this, because I’ve taken a lot of grief on all this stuff. It’s giving people a sense that maybe this guy cares a little bit about me, maybe he understands some of my problems.”
Mr. Kasich first visited the Journal as governor in July 2011, six months after being inaugurated along with a crop of reform-minded executives across the Midwest. He complained that he wasn’t getting Scott Walker-style media credit for his budget, which curbed collective-bargaining and the power of state and local public-employee unions—a program he said was much stronger than Wisconsin’s. Even for Mr. Kasich, the hyperbole was operatic.
He had sensed, wrongly, that union trustbusting was as much in demand among the buckeyes as the badgers. Mr. Kasich’s approval rating dipped as low as 35%, and that fall a ballot question repealing the union reforms passed 62% to 38%.
Mr. Kasich dismissed this rout as a nonevent when he returned to the Journal in May 2012. He spent his first 20 minutes chronicling, in minute detail, his “exotic animal reform”: A suicide in Zanesville had recently let loose dozens of lions, Bengal tigers and bears, plus a baboon, from a private zoo. Mr. Kasich was trying to pass the state’s first pet species ownership restriction law. The distance from pushing major labor reforms to pacifying the Ohio veld seemed to indicate the evanescence of his ambitions.
Then again, Mr. Kasich went on to be re-elected by a two-to-one margin. The Democrats couldn’t field a credible candidate, but as he sees it, voters rewarded him for results.
In his first term, despite the labor defeat, he closed an $8 billion budget deficit, repealed the estate tax, cut income-tax rates, tightened welfare requirements and deregulated. He closed the Ohio corporate-welfare bureaucracy and replaced it with a public-private corporation that is “the best economic development entity, I believe, in the country.” The Ohio economy, a basket case under his predecessors, is creating more jobs than the average for Great Lakes states and has diversified into shale energy, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, biotech and logistics.
He says the credit raters once told him, “There’s no way you can fix Ohio. It’s dead.” The governor’s response? “I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no! Think of us as a basketball player who’s 7 feet tall but doesn’t know how to dribble.’ ” As president, Mr. Kasich says he’d start conducting ball-handling drills. Invoking his 1990s and Ohio experiences, he explains that “if it’s worked twice, it ought to work thrice, and I think the plan is very reasonable.”
Mr. Kasich is proposing what he calls a “shock and awe” economic package: tax reform to lower the top individual income rate to 28%, the corporate rate to 25% and capital gains to 15%; reform of entitlements and the bureaucracy to cut the growth of spending and balance the budget in eight years; deregulation; and control of the border. “The No. 1 thing,” he says, “is economic growth.”
In an era of polarization, Mr. Kasich says he’d revive a prelapsarian state of comity. “My program wouldn’t be just partisan. I know I could get some Democrats to vote for this kind of stuff,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve had a president in a very, very long time, since Clinton, that actually knew how to deal with a legislature.” The governor then tells a story about dealing with Democrats in Ohio, detours into human trafficking, highway funds and the gas tax. Then, back on subject: “This president doesn’t know how to do it and I’m not sure Bush did it. He really had a great personality, but I am not convinced he really knew how. There’s a certain technique: it’s calling their mom; it’s calling their kids; it’s bringing them into your office; it’s letting them ride in the car.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he adds. “There ain’t anybody else running that knows how to do this.”
Perhaps Mr. Kasich’s candidacy is under-kindled because he is identified with the “Republican Establishment,” or what’s left of it, in an outsider’s year. “When anybody ever says, ‘Well, you seem more moderate,’ ” the governor observes, “I go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a minute here, let’s talk about—do you think cutting taxes is conservative? Do you think balancing budgets is conservative? Do you think school choice is conservative? Do you think welfare reform is conservative? You just kind of don’t like my tone, don’t you?’ ”
Mr. Kasich’s tone won’t satisfy modern hyperpartisans who favor politics red in tooth and claw. But what’s notable is how sui generis
—and occasionally, how liberal—his conservatism is. Mr. Kasich isn’t the kind of Republican who wants to retreat on social issues like abortion, climate change or child tax credits. Instead, he has philosophically inconsistent positions, all equally strongly held.
Speaking of tone, Mr. Kasich can be self-righteous. He dismisses arguments he finds uncongenial with phrases like “Are you kidding me?” and “Come on,” and he’s quick to impugn the motives of critics. He also tends to weaponize his Christian convictions, as if those critics are blaspheming.
These two weaknesses, if that’s what they are—his policy schisms and instinct for moral censure—combined in his 2013 decision to have Ohio join the new Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Other Republican governors did too, but Mr. Kasich bypassed opposition in the state legislature by using an arcane outside board, and he then toured the country insulting anyone who dissented.
The sentimental narrative that the apostle John Kasich rolls out is that when you get to the pearly gates, St. Peter isn’t going to ask what you did to keep the government small. But he will
ask what you did for the poor. The governor instructs his critics to consult Matthew 25, where Jesus tells his followers to help “the least of these brothers.” As recently as January, in an address before Montana legislators who opposed Medicaid expansion, he insinuated that they were responsible for killing “a guy who froze to death.”
Mr. Kasich opened Medicaid to able-bodied working-age adults with no dependent children. We wondered, given that resources are scarce, why not instead use taxpayer dollars to help the more than 40,000 Ohioans with developmental disabilities on Medicaid waiting lists—22,000 with immediate needs? The average wait time for these extra “waiver” services is about six years.
“As a result of having expanded it, I now have the resources to treat mental health and drug addiction,” Mr. Kasich replies, before noting that “we now have a program where if you’re developmentally disabled, we can try to get you as mainstreamed as possible. So I’m not so sure that your numbers are right but I’d be glad to check.”
When we follow up, Mr. Kasich says his expansion is “providing resources dramatically for everybody, for the mentally ill, for the drug addicted, for the working poor and probably for the developmentally disabled. And like I say, our biggest increase in our budget this year was for the developmentally disabled.”
Afterward a spokesman sends an email suggesting that the Ohio waiting lists aren’t “the best measure,” because parents pre-emptively add their children to get a jump on wait times. “Part of the reason the list is what it is,” he adds, “is because the previous governors did such a poor job.”
To his credit, Mr. Kasich has worked to make Medicaid less dysfunctional. The point is that rather than make holier-than-thou lectures, Mr. Kasich might find more traction among Republicans if he assumed that most Americans are arguing in good faith, even those who disagree with him—or Him.
Mr. Kasich’s chance is due north. “If I get destroyed in New Hampshire, then that’s the end of the game. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, ’cause I have too good of ground game up there. That’s how you win elections, with the ground game. I’ve got the best ground game in the state,” he says. “So the question is do they identify our voters and deliver them. That’s how you win elections.”
The author Mr. Rago is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.