One of the big stories to come out of last week's Republican primary debate was the emergence of Ohio Gov. John Kasich as a serious contender. It's true that he had a home field advantage but that alone cannot explain his apparent rise in the polls. It's hard to know what it is about him that has excited primary voters, but the likely answer is that he appealed to the small segment of the Republican base that hasn't completely lost its mind.
(Of course, they don't know Kasich very well; once they get better acquainted, they may find themselves turning to ... well, there really isn't anyone you could conceivably call a moderate in the race.)
The beltway is intrigued by Kasich for all the reasons they are always intrigued by Republicans from the rust belt:Working class white voters live there, and in their mind they are the avatars of Real America. These states around the Great Lakes tend to be swing states, and they like to elect bipartisan "reformers," which is a thrilling concept to the beltway establishment, which fetishizes the idea that all that's required of the president is a particular personality that commits to "getting the job done."
Previously, Scott Walker had them tricked into thinking he was 2016's bipartisan "it guy" -- until they realized that he has the personality of a doorstop and the policies of Ted Cruz. Even these insiders can't pretend that Walker will be the bipartisan champion they've been waiting for. So now Kasich is the guy.
The problem is that Kasich is seriously out of touch.
On his appearance on "Meet the Press" last weekend, Kasich sounded as if he woke up and thought he was still in his first presidential run back in 1999:
"Now, some people say, 'Well, you favor a path to citizenship.' No, I do not. But I have never taken any of this off the table because, Chuck, whether it's fixing Social Security, balancing a budget, rebuilding the Pentagon, fixing the border, whatever, you cannot do these things with just one party. They tried it with Obamacare, and now even the Democrats run away from Obamacare. I have learned over the course of my lifetime you need some degree of bipartisan cooperation. And just think back to Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill. I mean, they were working together when it was to serve America. And that's what I think we need, a good dose of that."
That's right, he actually used that moldy Tip and Ronnie line like he thought nobody had ever heard it before. (In fairness, he wasn't alone -- during the Kiddie Table debate last week, Lindsay Graham said, "I will be the Ronald Reagan if I can find a Tip O'Neill," but his delivery throughout was so lugubrious you would have been forgiven for falling asleep before he reached the punchline.)
But Kasich didn't reveal just how out of touch he is with that stale, overused trope alone. Look at his list of issues: Now it's true that the border is a hot item in this race, but "fixing social security," rebuilding the Pentagon, and balancing the budget are agenda items that have all fallen down the list of GOP concerns in the last few years. Sure, they are perennial talking points, but apparently he is unaware of the fact that the Obama White House offered up huge cuts to Social Security and his own party agreed to major cuts to the Pentagon in the last few years. Conservatives held their breath until they turned blue and ended up without the former while letting the Pentagon cuts go through. And yes, they also cut a bunch of social programs for the poor, of the kind Kasich actually defends.
Is Kasich laboring under the illusion that he can tame the GOP? Perhaps he should schedule a dinner with his old friends John Boehner and Eric Cantor to catch up on what's been happening while he was toiling at Fox News.
But this comment from a town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday perfectly illustrates how stuck in the past Kasich really is:
“On entitlements, they all need to be—so let me give you my basic feeling on it. If you’re on it, we don’t want to take it away. The baby boomers are going to have to give some on it. Not sure what it’s going to be yet, because I gotta go back and do all the numbers again. And for the younger people I still like the idea of giving them an opportunity to earn money through the strength of our American economy, with Social Security included in that.”
He also needs to consult a calendar, because many millions of baby boomers have already been "on it" for some time now, and those who aren't are getting very close. Now it's true that back in 1999, when Kasich last looked at the figures, we were all a lot younger. Apparently, he hasn't thought through the implications of all that -- but he's going to go back and "do all the numbers again" so that's good.
Yes, while Kasich was busy collecting his Lehman Brothers paycheck, George W. Bush was trying to privatize Social Security --- oh, excuse me, "give young people the opportunity to earn money through the strength of our American economy, with Social Security included in that." That's yet another late-'90s idea which the epic market crash of 2007 finally put out to pasture when it was made obvious to everyone except Wall Street and John Kasich that having every last bit of your pension rely on the "strength of the American economy" might not be such a hot idea. Enough people at or close to retirement lost a lot of money and growth in their retirement plans as it was.
Back in 1964, the sainted Ronald Reagan famously said:
"A young man, 21 years of age, working at an average salary — his Social Security contribution would, in the open market, buy him an insurance policy that would guarantee 220 dollars a month at age 65. The government promises 127. He could live it up until he’s 31 and then take out a policy that would pay more than Social Security. Now are we so lacking in business sense that we can’t put this program on a sound basis, so that people who do require those payments will find they can get them when they’re due — that the cupboard isn’t bare?"
Those 21 year olds are elderly now, many of them dependent on Social Security as their only income. There are always some seniors who were able to set enough money aside to take care of themselves in retirement, but life can throw many curveballs and you just never know if you're going to get plunked in the head by one of them.
Friday is the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Republicans have been looking for ways to destroy it since the very beginning. In their view it is socialism, and regardless of how well it works or how many people depend upon it, it must be stopped. Its very existence repudiates their fundamental philosophy -- that government cannot work. Social Security works and it works very efficiently. In fact, the entire debate has now shifted away from benefits cuts to a discussion of how to expand it.
John Kasich spent his first term as governor of Ohio trying to bust the public employees unions, and when the public rebelled with a referendum at the ballot box, he shifted gears and became a "compassionate conservative." He's an odd duck in many ways, as I discussed in this earlier piece. I suppose that's what some people like about him -- he's not a Tea Party type like Scott Walker. But he is a doctrinaire conservative circa 1999 and that was very conservative indeed. (Remember, the Republicans had just impeached a president for only the second time in history and were about to nominate a man who would later take this country to war on false pretenses.) It's a testament to how far to the right we've drifted that Kasich's seen as moderate today simply by recycling his conservative agenda of 16 years ago.