I know everyone's on tenterhooks today waiting for the political event of the season. Sure, it may seem as though we can't take any more excitement, what with Trump insulting the wrong person and Jeb managing to not put every last person to sleep. But could it be that the Republicans have saved the best for last? Today is K-Day, when Ohio Governor John Kasich is scheduled to announce that he's officially in the race. Yes, it is thrilling.
It's possible you may not know John Kasich all that well, unless you're an avid observer of the Gingrich years in Congress or live in Ohio today. But there are few people in public whose political personas have changed as much as Kasich's has, which makes him someone it's worth paying a little bit of attention to, even if it's only for the day.
Back in the '90s, Kasich was the rough equivalent of Paul Ryan, without all the Randian weirdness, an obsessive budget hawk (aren't they all?) but also a sober policy wonk, someone everybody thought was an honest broker with whom you could deal. And, unlike Ryan, it wasn't all hype. He made his bones by shepherding the balanced budget of 1997 through the House and was immediately marked for bigger things. When Gingrich's top lieutenants staged a failed coup, Kasich wisely kept his distance, and then briefly became a presidential contender in 2000. Then, despite a reputation for an ascetic style and edgy personality (much like a liberal icon of the era, Ralph Nader), once he left Congress he was given a show on Fox News, and usually came across as a mainstream Republican -- which is to say a hardcore conservative obsessed with cutting taxes, budgets and regulations.He also went to work for Lehman Brothers, until they went under. Of course.
In 2010, Kasich ran for Governor of Ohio as a Tea Party conservative and won. And, in keeping with his Tea Party promises, the first thing he did was decimate the public employees' unions. Unlike Scott Walker, he didn't just go after the kindergarten teachers (whom we can all agree are a grave threat to everything Americans hold dear); he also targeted the mostly male professions of police and firefighters. The unions then took it to the ballot and the people voted against Kasich's law, big time.
That failure seemed to lead him to the decision that it was long past time to let his freak flag fly in public. But his freak flag doesn't look like any other GOP governor's freak flag. Where executives like Sam Brownback turned their states into a "petrie dish" [sic] for supply side economics and fundamentalist theocracy, and pretty much destroyed its economy, Kasich came out for the expansion of Medicaid, saying that it was important for poor people to have medical care:
"They can't afford health care. What are we going to do, leave them out in the street? Walk away from them, when we have a chance to help them? 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. We can help them."
Later, he committed this heresy:
"Because people are poor doesn't mean they don't work hard. ... The most important thing for this legislature to think about: Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Put yourself in the shoes of a mother and a father with an adult child that's struggling. Walk in somebody else’s moccasins. Understand that poverty is real."
Meanwhile, the rest of his party was clutching their pearls over the "47 percent," and calling anyone who might need assistance "moochers" and "parasites." By contrast, Kasich might as well have declared that his greatest influence was Karl Marx. Mainstream Republicans and Tea Partiers alike went mad. And the more they tried to obstruct him, the more he resisted. His flinty temperament engaged, he decided to take unilateral actions and fought the Tea Party, the Kochs and his own political allies all the way to the state Supreme Court and won. Then he handily won re-election, setting himself up for this presidential run as a moderate GOP iconoclast in a sea of doctrinaire conservatives.
As Molly Ball put it in this Atlantic article for a few months back, headlined "The Unpleasant Charisma of John Kasich":
If only, Republican voters might be thinking, there were a candidate who could appeal to blue-collar voters but also mingle with the GOP establishment. A governor who’d proven he could run a large state but who also had national experience. Someone who’d won tough elections and maintained bipartisan popularity in an important swing state. A candidate whose folksy demeanor and humble roots would contrast nicely with Hillary Clinton’s impersonal, stiffly scripted juggernaut. That’s Kasich’s pitch, in a nutshell.
That sounds good, except for one thing. When Kasich let his freak flag fly, he really waved it around and then rubbed it in people's faces. He's not the only GOP governor with a bombastic, confrontational style, but his temper flies willy-nilly against just about anyone. For all his failures, and subsequent successes, he's got a personality that is so strange that if it weren't for Donald Trump being in the race, he'd get the weirdo prize in a heartbeat.
There was, for example, this odd moment:
Kasich was ticketed on Jan. 11, 2008, for "approaching a public safety vehicle with lights displayed" on Route 315 in Columbus and later paid an $85 fine. But he was not happy about it.
During a Jan. 21 speech to Ohio EPA workers, the governor recalled the day three years ago when he was given the ticket. In telling the story, Kasich, who took office on Jan. 10, three times referred to the Columbus police officer who ticketed him as an idiot as seen in this video:
"Have you ever been stopped by a police officer that's an idiot," Kasich asked the seated audience, pausing his speech as he moved around the room. "I had this idiot pull me over on 315. Listen to this story. He says to me, he say, uh, he says you passed this emergency vehicle on the side of the road and you didn't yield."
"I said, officer I, are you kidding, I didn't, I didn't see any, I didn't even see any, where the heck was it?" a stammering Kasich recalls. "The last thing I would ever do would be to pass an emergency, are you kidding me?"
"He says, 'Well I understand that. Give me your license,'" Kasich continues. "He goes back to the car, comes back, gives me a ticket and says you must report to court, if you don't report to court we're putting a warrant out for your arrest."
Then Kasich stills himself and bellows, "He's an idiot! We just can't act that way. What people resent are people who are in the government who don't treat the client with respect."
Republicans don't tend to like that sort of talk. And I'm going to guess that his African American constituents aren't too sympathetic to his plight.
To his credit Kasich later signed an executive order calling for statewide standards for law enforcement in the wake of the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland. But that was only after he had said to the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, when they'd asked him to diversify his lily-white, mostly-male cabinet, “I don’t need your people.” His freak flag flies in all directions.
Then there's the matter of his 2012 State of the State speech, a legendary address that included some of the following bullet points (collated by Business Insider):
- A reference to his "hot wife"
- Imitating someone with Parkinson's disease
- Warning two recipients of the the Governor's Courage Awards not to sell their medals on eBay.
- Calling Californians "a bunch of wackadoodles."
- Referring to ethnic communities as "the ethnics," and to God as a "lobbyist" for the "mentally ill, the disabled, the poor."
- Giving a "shout-out" to virtually every person in the room — and multiple shout-outs to Ohio State President Gordon Gee
- Telling the people of Ohio that he wanted to "touch them."
- Mentioning Galileo, Soviet gulags, John Adams and "Navy SEAL" — all in one breath.
And then there was this 2014 tirade against a big money donor which may be the worst faux pas a GOP candidate can make:
Last year, he traveled to Southern California to appear on a panel at a conference sponsored by the Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch. At one point, according to accounts provided by two sources present, Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and the wife of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, rose to say she disagreed with Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage, and questioned why he’d expressed the view it was what God wanted.
The governor’s response was fiery. “I don’t know about you, lady,” he said as he pointed at Kendrick, his voice rising. “But when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”
The exchange left many stunned. About 20 audience members walked out of the room, and two governors also on the panel, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, told Kasich they disagreed with him. The Ohio governor has not been invited back to a Koch seminar — opportunities for presidential aspirants to mingle with the party’s rich and powerful — in the months since.
It's not personal. He's rude to everybody.
The original plan was obviously to situate him in the race as the compassionate "moderate" with the conservative budget cred. Because hope apparently springs eternal that the party is turning away from extremism, he has even reportedly hired two of Jon Huntsman's former advisors. But in Kasich you have a governor with a good economic record and a very unpredictable personality.
It would be interesting if he caught fire in the GOP primary purely because they just like that he let his freak flag fly. It would validate the idea that these right wingers don't really care about what these contenders say, they just like the in-your-face bully boy style. But unlike Trump, who only insulted foreign countries, ethnic minorities and John McCain, Kasich was rude to cops and rich people which may be a bridge too far. And he committed the cardinal sin of trying to help poor people which is normally completely beyond the pale with those folks.
If John Kasich becomes a real contender, we will know for sure that the Republican base has officially abandoned ideology in favor of crude unhinged affect. And the most frightening thing about that is it would actually be an improvement.