Flirting with the Middle

Despite his conservative record, Gov. John Kasich looks to kick up buzz for a potential White House run by presenting himself as moderate

click to enlarge John Kasich
John Kasich

Ohio Gov. John Kasich hasn’t formally joined the crowded 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest, but he’s done everything else to signal he’s interested in a bid for the nation’s highest office.

Though he has a staunchly conservative record in Ohio, Kasich so far has portrayed himself as a less ideologically driven, more practical kind of leader. That could help him make the case that he’s the most electable candidate in a field mostly comprised of fiery ideologues. But he’s still a long-shot candidate who has a long haul to catch up to establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush.

“America needs to be led by somebody who’s not worried about appealing to specific groups,” Kasich told Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer last week. “I think everybody’s about the same in America. We’re worried about our children, about the debt, about the fact we can’t seem to solve problems. In some ways, I’m trying to redefine what it means to be conservative.”

Despite these calls for redefinition, Kasich has plenty of traditionally conservative policy and social ideas. He has stuck to his guns as an opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, for instance, and continues to push a very conservative economic agenda in Ohio.

In his campaigning thus far, he’s been mostly mum about specific policy proposals he would enact as president. He’s also a little coy about how serious he is about running.

“If I think I can win, I’m likely to do it,” Kasich said. “But I’m not going to do it just on a wild hair.”

Despite the non-committal tone, Kasich has taken some serious steps to get into the race. The campaign’s fundraising nonprofit, called A New Day for America, recently filed with the IRS, allowing him to begin raising money in earnest. And the governor has recently travelled to early primary states like New Hampshire, gone on Sunday political talk shows like Meet the Press and taken trips to Washington for everything from private meetings with GOP lawmakers to big events like an Atlantic magazine policy forum.

Kasich’s pitch: He’s a straight-talking, no-nonsense leader, not an ideologue. He’s got competition in that field, however, from frontrunner Bush. The former Florida governor has mountains of name recognition as part of a political dynasty that includes two past presidents.

Deserved or not, Bush also has a reputation as a relatively reasonable conservative in a crowd of loud and divisive contenders. Like Kasich, Bush supports Common Core, a big no-go for tea party brand conservatives. He’s also moderate on immigration reform, leaving the door open for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Kasich has staked out a similar position.

At this early stage in the campaign, Bush is the candidate most actively combining visibility with general election viability. Recent polls show him at or near the top of the Republican field, while Kasich hovers around 2 percent of the vote in most polls. Big donors from the GOP establishment have started lining up for Bush. He set a Republican Party record for fundraising in the first 100 days of a presidential campaign, the Wall Street Journal noted April 27, and he hasn’t even officially started running.

But Bush’s name is a double-edged sword, and some Republicans are questioning whether the country is ready for Dubya’s younger brother to lead.

Jeb has a “problem,” former president George W. Bush told a crowd of 7,000 at a healthcare conference in Chicago April 15. “Me.”

“It’s an easy line to say, ‘Haven’t we had enough Bushes?’ ” the elder Bush told the crowd.

Kasich’s kinder, friendlier conservative image is similar to Bush’s, but without the family baggage. Meanwhile, his less confrontational attitude sets him apart from other high-profile firebrands like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz has been a tea party favorite since he was elected in 2012. In the Senate, he’s proven divisive — fighting tooth and nail against the Affordable Care Act and other Democratic policies, sometimes with harsh tactics like those that helped usher in the October 2013 government shutdown.

Kasich has also differentiated himself from another big contender, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Early in his time as governor, Kasich and Walker seemed to be on a similar wavelength. Kasich helped bring about an incredibly controversial bill called SB-5 in 2011, which sought to strip most Ohio public employees of their collective bargaining rights. The same year, Walker signed a similar bill. Both caused widespread protests in their respective states. Walker rode his support for the measure all the way through a recall attempt, only the third in U.S. history. He survived the recall and has continued to play hard-knuckle conservative politics on economic matters.

In Ohio, however, SB-5 was nullified by a statewide ballot referendum after Kasich signed it into law. Sixty-one percent of voters in the state voted against the legislation, a stinging rebuke for the then-new governor. Kasich’s approval ratings sank to just 31 percent.

“It’s clear the people have spoken,” Kasich said in a speech after the referendum. “I heard their voices. I understand their decision. And, frankly, I respect what the people have to say in an effort like this. And as a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath and to spend some time to reflect on what happened here.”

Kasich recalibrated and over the next few years spent more time talking about the state’s struggles with poverty, drug addiction and other issues. He fought his own party to push through a controversial 2013 Medicaid expansion that accepted federal funds to provide 500,000 more Ohioans with health insurance. Many other staunch conservatives, including Walker and Cruz, have opposed that move in their states. Even Bush, Kasich’s supposedly moderate foe, has said he would not have supported that expansion in Florida.

Kasich’s softened, consensus-seeking image has paid dividends. His approval ratings have surged and he easily coasted to reelection against weak Democrat opponent Ed FitzGerald last November.

But despite his friendlier vibe and a few more moderate policy choices, Kasich’s economic proposals are still very decidedly right-leaning. His last two budgets have tilted Ohio’s tax structure toward a much more regressive model that puts more burden on low-income workers and less burden on big business and the state’s highest earners.

In this year’s budget, Kasich proposed cutting the state’s income tax by 23 percent while seeking to raise sales taxes, saying it would spur economic growth. Even conservative Republican state lawmakers balked at that idea, opting for more moderate cuts and no sales tax boost.

As Kasich wrangles with state lawmakers over Ohio’s hard-right budget, he’s seeking to take his softer brand of conservatism national, keeping an eye on 2016.

“Think of me, would ya,” he told a crowd of powerful conservative activists April 18 in New Hampshire, where he touted his record as governor and his 18 years in Congress. “Don’t commit too soon.” ©