Editor’s column: GOP could do much worse than Kasich
In discussing the early presidential race the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I admire politicians who appear to be driven by principle and their true beliefs rather than by polls and focus groups.
One such politician is John Kasich, a Republican in his second term as Ohio governor and a congressman for 18 years. A recent entrant in the large Republican presidential field, he was able to get onto the prime-time stage of the first Republican debate last week.
Kasich’s tenure in the U.S. House included six years as House Budget Committee chairman, during which the United States, with a Republican Congress and Democratic president, had its last balanced budgets. The economy was good at the time, and many played a role. Politifact, though, found that “Kasich deserves credit for conceiving, sponsoring and negotiating passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.”
You aren’t alone if you haven’t heard of him, but he’s extraordinarily experienced and draws high-level praise. In January, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that “the Ohio governor is easily the most underestimated Republican this year.”
After last week’s first debate, the Wall Street Journal said Kasich offered “one of the most cohesive visions articulated for what he thinks needs to be done in this country.”
The folks at Time.com gushed over him after the debate: “John Kasich could be the GOP’s Pope Francis candidate,” arguing that “Recent polling suggests that practicing and preaching Pope Francis politics works.”
It’s not a johnny-come-lately approach for Kasich, though. It’s who he is, what he believes and what drives him.
Kasich is the kind of Republican, I would submit, who has a better chance to draw independents and moderates in the general election and win the White House than he is to win caucuses and primaries dominated by the far right of the party.
Remember that he is from Ohio and last year won a landslide re-election victory. Since the Civil War, only three people have won the presidency without winning Ohio, all Democrats: Grover Cleveland (twice), Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John Kennedy. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. Ever.
I have a more direct impression of Kasich than of other candidates from leading the news staff at the Cincinnati Enquirer before moving here.
Beyond editing stories about him and paying attention to others’ coverage, I was part of an editorial board meeting with him, a much more intimate and relaxed setting than a public appearance; and I attended a small AARP luncheon in 2013 at which he was the speaker — and truly was in his element.
It was there I first heard him use a now-widely circulated line about why he was fighting Republicans in the Ohio Legislature to expand Medicaid under Obamacare:
“When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” he said. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
John Kasich is much more conservative than I am, but it’s hard not to respect that and other Kasich statements that truly seem to come from his core and his regular Bible study group.
Chrissie Thompson, a colleague in Cincinnati and before that Detroit, is covering his presidential bid full time. She and her husband vacationed in Colorado last month, giving me a chance as we hiked to Thomas Lakes to catch up with one of the nation’s leading Kasich watchers.
Chrissie has taken to calling him a moderate — which might say more about where the Republican Party has gone than about Kasich. She has observed him work to soften his sometimes-abrupt, always-self-certain approach. She describes him as giddy in early appearances — a good sign for sustaining a long campaign.
He has conservative bona fides: The balanced budget, unwavering opposition to abortion and tax policies in step with the GOP mainstream. However, he is far from the rigid fundamentalist conservatives who dominate the scene today.
He is being attacked for his administrative maneuver to expand Medicaid in Ohio, cozying up to Obamacare, as his critics put it. By that point, in 2013, it was impossible to live in Ohio and not know someone whose family had been touched by the new heroin epidemic fed by prescription pain pills, which was killing about four Ohioans a day.
As is the case across the country, mental illness is poorly treated in Ohio, another factor driving Kasich’s actions.
“For those that live in the shadows of life, those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored,” he said in his 2013 State of the State address.
His administration got Ohio prison inmates covered by Medicaid to get them treatment and cut recidivism. Besides arguing for basic decency, Kasich makes a fiscal case for these moves, arguing that they save money over time. Many Republicans used to be this way, though critics see his tax policies as cruel.
He is pragmatic, so he recognizes that in fixing the immigration system, it’s folly to argue that 11 million people living in the United States illegally should be deported. “I don’t like the idea of citizenship when people jump the line, [but] we may have to do it,” Kasich said at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida late last year. “Everybody in this country has to feel as though they have an opportunity.”
Asked in the debate about gay marriage, which he opposes, Kasich said, “Because someone doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. … I would accept them because, you know what, that’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”
He believes what he says. If you saw Thursday’s debate, you know that the Republicans could do much worse in choosing their standard-bearer.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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