Stop mooning over John Kasich: He's not more "reasonable" than Trump, he's just better at camouflaging his agenda

The desire of moderates to push “moderation” as a valuable brand for its own sake is a terrible idea

Published March 20, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

John Kasich   (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
John Kasich (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Yes, I saw the Kasich victory speech on Tuesday. It was a good speech, especially for those of us who’ve been despairing over the fact that the GOP frontrunner’s speeches tend to be composed of disjointed screaming soundbites and outright calls to violence.

John Kasich is good at making speeches. He’s good at looking and sounding “moderate”. His lines about his fellow Republicans’ “War on the Poor” from 2013 and his Bible-based defense of Obamacare in 2015 were inspiring enough that Democrats in red states should have all been taking notes.

The temptation to latch onto him as an alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz--especially now that Marco Rubio is gone--is huge, especially for bridge-builders on the Left, to the point of people losing the script enough to call for Hillary Clinton to invite him onto a cross-party presidential ticket.

The political press is more fretful about the continued survival of the “moderate Republican” than they are the giant panda. Seeking out a Rockefeller-style Republican who has no chance of achieving national office to champion as a throwback to a better age of conservative is now an election-year ritual; John Kasich is basically a replay of Jon Huntsman four years ago.

This is a shame. Because John Kasich is, in fact, terrible, as any even sort-of-left-of-center Ohioan could tell you, and watching people from the coasts who hadn’t even heard of him until 2015 fete him is terrible, and the whole concept of the desire of moderates to push “moderation” as a valuable brand for its own sake is terrible.

The first thing to point out is that Kasich being a “moderate” at all is a rebranding and a sign of shifting political alignments. John Kasich defeated Ted Strickland in the governor’s race in 2010 as the Tea Party candidate. It’s easy to forget now that the Tea Party turned its back on him after his recent facelift as a bleeding-heart pro-Obamacare moderate, but in 2010 he was the firebreathing right-winger and Strickland was the soft, gooey centrist whose loss was widely blamed on pandering to everyone and standing for nothing.

When he was the Democratic Governor of Ohio from 2006 to 2010 it was Ted Strickland who prized his endorsements from Republicans, who boasted of cutting back business-unfriendly regulations and of his consistent pro-gun record and endorsement from the NRA. Now that Strickland is back on the scene to go for Rob Portman’s Ohio Senate seat, it was Strickland’s primary challengers P.G. Sittenfeld and Kelli Prather trying to remind everyone of this while his former Republican friends gleefully tore him down. Now, with political memories shrunk to less than a decade he’s hugging Sherrod Brown’s platform, foregrounding his love for unions and his hatred of Wall Street, claiming a road-to-Damascus moment on gun control after Sandy Hook, etc. The moderate and the populist have switched places.

So far, so typical. This is all part of how the chess pieces rearrange themselves after every election. Even in 2010, in fact, Strickland called out the weird contradiction in Kasich running as a Tea Party populist when he’d been a managing director for Lehman Brothers for years. Politicians contradict themselves--it’s inherent to what they do and how they keep their jobs, given that the American public itself gives wildly contradicting signals to what they actually want every few years. This is why, even though I don’t particularly like Hillary Clinton, I’m not appalled by her numerous flip-flops the way many Sanders supporters are and why I rolled my eyes when Bush’s supporters introduced “flip-flop” into our national conversation to smear John Kerry back in the ancient year of 2004.

So yes, Ted Strickland 2016 is a better candidate than Ted Strickland 2006 and it doesn’t matter to me all that much whether that’s the result of a sincere change of heart or cynically shifting with the political wind. And John Kasich 2016 is a more palatable candidate than John Kasich 2010, even if the shifts that have pissed off his former Tea Party base are ridiculously small things to be celebrating, like mild taxes on fracking companies and tech startups or not calling for Obama’s impeachment for the grave sin of letting freelancers like me buy health insurance.

It’s not the places where Kasich has genuinely flip-flopped on policy that bug me. It’s where he hasn’t--where, in fact, he’s remained steadfast and consistent--but his image has somehow flipped that bothers me.

Kasich ran as an anti-union firebrand in 2010, part of a wave of such candidates in the Year of the Tea Party. His colleague Scott Walker in Wisconsin has kept that reputation, whereas Kasich has been trying to cozy up to unions after his trademark anti-collective-bargaining measure was overturned by voters in 2011--in other words, he changed his rhetoric after his actions were forcibly blocked and he had no choice.

Which is why it’s so telling that in 2015--well within living memory even in the Internet Age--Kasich cracked a joke about how if he were King of America he’d ban teacher’s lounges, because they provide a space for teachers to complain. (Not a joke over drinks in a bar, mind, but a joke intended as part of a talking point in support of “education reform” and the continued assault on teacher’s unions and public education going on today.) It’s telling that in that same hazy, misty ancient era of 2015 “moderate” John Kasich went after the collective bargaining rights of that well-heeled, affluent, high-status “special interest group,” in-home health-care aides and child-care workers.

It’s telling that outside of “feminist” and “women’s issues” spaces it’s been hard to find anyone talking about Kasich’s wholesale assault on reproductive rights in Ohio. It’s quite telling that Kasich has managed to get seen as a moderate on this issue because he spoke out against the anti-Planned Parenthood federal government shutdown (despite quietly signing a bill to do the exact same thing on the state level) and because he’s kept his face out of pro-life rallies.


Here’s the thing. There is a difference between doing things like threatening a federal shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood or calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade and just quietly signing every piece of legislation that crosses your desk to restrict abortion access based on technicalities, until you’ve ended up shutting down half the abortion clinics in the state and putting half the remaining ones at risk. The former ends up being much more newsworthy than the latter, but the latter is much more effective.

Bob Taft, the Republican governor who preceded Strickland and a Republican stalwart in the 2000s, got himself in trouble for allowing pro-life license plates. Kasich doesn’t rant about abortion or give speeches about it and, indeed, famously keeps mum as much as possible when asked direct questions about it--and has done far more damage to reproductive choice than Taft ever dreamed himself capable of doing, and been able to do so precisely because he’s kept it quiet. (In retrospect, on most issues, including the issues Kasich gets “moderate” credit for like taxes and the environment, Kasich makes Taft look like FDR--and Bob Taft is literally the grandson and namesake of the author of the Taft-Hartley Act.)

A theme I keep returning to is the fact that the obviously scary threats aren’t the most dangerous because they are, indeed, obvious. Donald Trump is on a certain level less worrisome than Ted Cruz precisely because Ted Cruz holds most of Trump’s most noxious views but hasn’t inspired the same social-media frenzy comparing him to Hitler and demanding everyone everywhere unite to stop them.

And Kasich is on a certain level more worrisome than either, especially because he doesn’t really seem to be angling to defeat Donald Trump at all costs--it is, after all, mathematically nearly impossible for him to actually win this primary--as he does to make himself kingmaker between Trump and Cruz, and thus get crowned the “reasonable voice” with a plum posting in a future Trump or Cruz administration.

Don’t get me wrong: The outright direct hatred and violence that comes out of a Donald Trump rally is a recent low for our country and poses extreme short-term dangers for people around them. As a Clevelander I’m extremely worried about the riots Trump himself predicts after a brokered GOP convention next door to my house.

But that’s only one kind of violence. There are plenty of others. Quietly signing a bill into law that shuts down abortion clinics--ultimately enforced by the power of the state--is a form of violence. Quietly signing a bill into law that prevents rape counselors from telling survivors how to get an abortion--ultimately enforced by the power of the state--is a form of violence. Quietly signing a bill into law that bans workers from organizing--ultimately enforced by the power of the state, sometimes quite viciously--is a form of violence.

Yes, the worst case scenario--one I still think is unlikely, and hope I don’t have to eat crow over--is Trump becoming a new authoritarian dictator able to go hogwild deporting people, imprisoning people and letting blood run in the streets from violent followers confident he’ll pay their legal fees.

The best case scenario in a Trump presidency would be four years of obstruction, where Democrats and Republicans come together to freeze out the White House from the levers of power and wait for voters to realize their mistake--an appealing fantasy to many, but one I also doubt will come to fruition.

What I actually expect to happen, should Trump win, is for him to get surrounded by Republican politicians who make him into a blustering, outrage-grabbing figurehead while using their “voice of reason” status to continue to do horrible things that, unlike Trump’s rants about executing Muslims with bullets soaked in pig’s blood, are unlikely to attract mainstream outrage and therefore far more likely to work.

It’s the moderates who fly under the shadow of extremists you have to watch, because it’s people who are perceived as moderates who are much more likely to get things done--and standing right next to an extremist who’s clumsy and brazen enough to come off as extremist is the best way for another extremist to look moderate.

It’s easy for well-off Cleveland-area liberals to call Kasich a “moderate” because his rallies when he comes to Cleveland are orderly and civilized and not nearly as scary as Trump’s, because he signs off on things liberal wonks approve of like modest sales taxes and Medicaid expansions (though drawing the line at increasing income tax on the wealthy or on actually having an Ohio-specific ACA exchange, which in Kasich’s world is leftist “extremism”).

But try selling Kasich’s “moderate” record to a pregnant woman in rural Ohio who would need to drive for two hours to find an abortion clinic--with her counselor legally barred from talking to her about how to do so--but only five minutes to buy a gun and ammunition. Or tell that to one of the teachers “complaining” in the teacher’s lounge because of his cuts to public schools in favor of an online charter school push that turned out to be a giant scam--a scandal that his underling David Hansen has been tarred and feathered for in the Ohio press but that somehow hasn’t stuck to Kasich nationally at all.

Sure, Kasich isn’t calling for pogroms against Muslims and Latinos, he isn’t cheering on the brutalization of protesters, he isn’t taking our nation right up to the brink of full-scale war. In most circumstances that wouldn’t be worthy of a cookie, much less a vote--it’s well below even minimal standards of decency for ordinary citizens, much less political candidates.

But this election season is special. And yes, if I were given no other option but to vote between Kasich and Trump, I would have to vote for Kasich--that’s exactly the kind of situation for which the phrase “literally Hitler” was added to contemporary vernacular.

Still, it pains me to see people who don’t know any better saying nice things about John Kasich he doesn’t deserve. It bothers me to see Trump’s open extremism scare people so much that even the appearance of moderation is enough to make people enthusiastically run to someone’s side--even when Trump is, in fact, more “moderate” on the issue of abortion than Kasich is.

I have no faith in Donald Trump’s future consistent support of Planned Parenthood in that I have no faith in Donald Trump’s future consistent behavior in anything. But John Kasich’s record on abortion is consistent, and it’s bad. Kasich, unlike Trump, is a seasoned, effective and competent leader--he is effective and competent at achieving bad goals.

All the things that “moderate” GOP leaders like about Kasich and hate about Trump--the fact that they can rely on Kasich to incrementally, successfully push forward a right-wing agenda without rocking the boat or sparking a backlash--are exactly the things that make Kasich and his ilk a more insidious long-term threat than Trump. The scary thing about people like Trump is that even if they’re defeated--as they are more often than not--they open up a big rightward gap on the Overton Window for people like Kasich to stroll right through. The worst thing about Kasich’s “flip-flopping” is that he was able to use the Tea Party movement to ride into power, then pick that party’s most unhinged and fanatical elements to disavow so that he could play “moderate” while actually dragging Ohio politics further to the right than it’d been in generations.

I’m not interested in a debate over whether Kasich or Trump is “worse”; they’re two heads of the same hydra. I’m interested in having a talk about Democrats’ relentless search for the “moderate Republican”--a Republican, in other words, that you don’t mind losing to so you can take some of the pressure off yourself to win--and how it enables the Good-Republican-Bad-Republican act that Trump and Kasich are pulling on us, right now.

By Arthur Chu

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2016 Elections Gop John Kasich Ohio Republicans