John Kasich on Tuesday will become the 16th prominent Republican to declare a 2016 presidential candidacy, and while the Ohio governor is a long shot to capture the GOP nod, he's the prohibitive favorite to win the media's quadrennial Reasonable Republican primary, representing the road less traveled for a Republican Party that has descended further into right-wing kookery in the Obama era.
At a time when reflexive opposition to President Obama's policies has led conservatives to rail against policies they had once championed, Kasich circumnavigated conservative legislators in his own party to expand Medicaid under the president's Affordable Care Act, bringing health insurance to more than 400,000 low-income Ohioans. The governor has been unapologetic in defending his decision to accept the ACA's Medicaid funds, casting it as part of his Christian duty to aid the "downtrodden." While a Republican wielding Christianity to justify his policy preferences may be the proverbial dog-bites-man story, it is unusual to see a high-ranking GOP official echo the Social Gospel ethos traditionally associated with the religious left. And as my colleague Simon Maloy noted this spring, the remarkable success of Ohio's Medicaid expansion may well put Kasich's more callous GOP opponents in an especially awkward position, forcing them to answer for their refusal to support expanded healthcare access.
Kasich's Medicaid heresy is easily his most prominent, given its inextricable link to a law Republicans have decried as the epitome of socialist tyranny. (Nonsensically, Kasich insists that Obamacare and Medicaid expansion are two separate issues, and that the former can be repealed without sacrificing the latter.) But Kasich has also parted ways with the hard right on immigration reform -- albeit after years of opposing reform -- and on the basic humanity of gay people. (Like every other Republican running for president, Kasich opposes marriage equality as a matter of policy, but he attended a same-sex wedding this month, and his campaign launch video features what appears to be a gay couple.)
Does this record a moderate make? Scan coverage of the governor, and you'd certainly think so. Politico dubbed Kasich an "Obamacare-loving moderate"; US News lauded Kasich's "centrist approach," contrasting his pragmatism with that of his GOP rivals; the Wall Street Journal, paradoxically, trumpeted Kasich's blend of "conservative orthodoxy" and "liberal policies." Even the liberal New Republic got in on the Kasich love, with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig hailing his "sturdy brand of Christian politics" and his purported challenge to "anti-welfare capitalist interests."
But Bernie Sanders this is not. While there's substantial evidence that Kasich is not consumed with a sociopathic loathing of immigrants and the poor, that's a remarkably low bar to clear to merit the "moderate" appellation. To be sure, Kasich has not quite followed the ultraconservative path charted by, say, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- but it's not for lack of trying. Just as Walker did, Kasich signed a law stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights shortly after taking office in 2011 -- and like Walker, Kasich witnessed a plunge in his standing in the polls; one April 2011 survey pegged Kasich's approval rating at a mere 30 percent. Unlike Wisconsin, Ohio lacked a law providing for a gubernatorial recall, so opponents of Kasich's anti-union law staged a November 2011 referendum on it instead. The outcome was a humiliating rebuke to the new governor; by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, voters overturned the law -- a chastening result that informed Kasich's subsequent decision not to pursue legislation making Ohio a so-called right-to-work state.
Though the searing experience of November 2011 tempered Kasich's anti-union instincts, he still went all-in on other conservative priorities, particularly on restricting abortion rights. In 2013, Kasich signed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood and mandating ultrasounds for women seeking abortions -- part of a ploy, reproductive rights activists asserted, to "regulate abortion out of existence."
Kasich would bring equally drastic designs to the federal government. In the run-up to his presidential campaign, Kasich ramped up his push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a pet cause since he was a foot soldier in Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution. Indeed, Kasich sees this crusade as the defining cause of our time.
“This is the most important issue facing the country today,” he said last year. “If you’re not standing on a solid financial base, everything else becomes so secondary. I don’t care what we’re talking about — immigration or any of the other issues."
Given Kasich's enthusiasm for tax cuts, a constitutional balanced budget mandate would effectively require savage cuts in spending on social insurance and programs to aid the poor, ostensibly the object of Kasich's Christian concern. Moreover, such an amendment would significantly hinder the government's ability to counteract the slump in private demand during economic downturns -- a point often lost on Very Serious types who love to blather on about the importance of fiscal rectitude, but would rather not ponder the practical implications of proposals like Kasich's.
Those Very Serious People will no doubt lament Kasich's inevitably dismal performance in the Republican primaries, seizing on the failure of his campaign as further evidence that sober moderation has no place in today's politics. But while Kasich is hardly a right-wing rabble-rouser on the scale of a Trump or a Cruz, he's hardly exponent of political centrism. That he is thought one at all says much more about the ever-rightward drift of the Republican Party than it does about Kasich himself.