The Good Conservative

After six years of Barack Obama, conservatives have managed to give themselves a bad name. If Obama was for it, they were against it, even if they were for it in the first place – the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act was an idea that came from their own Heritage Foundation, and that was the key part of Romney’s universal healthcare thing in Massachusetts, where it was just fine. Obamacare was Romneycare writ large, but now the whole thing was all wrong. Now they want to repeal Obamacare, every single word of it, as they all say, which would now leave somewhere around sixteen million people, who finally were able to buy health insurance, without it. Every single Republican wants Obamacare gone, but not one of them has any plan to account for those sixteen million people suddenly left high and dry, or for the collapse of the health insurance markets, now structured around the new system. That seems a bit callous, but they’re always proposing cuts to every part of the social safety net we have, such as it is, and vow that they will never raise the minimum wage ever again, and they will rid the nation of the last of the labor unions, so whining workers will never be able to gang up on employers ever again. Those spoiled brats – American workers – and ruining this country for the rest of us. That is not a popular position, unless you own a business. But who doesn’t? That’s the thinking.

That may be flawed thinking, and they also seem to think that someone out there thinks that they’re heroic for periodically shutting down the government, or for regular threats to do so, to get rid of Obamacare, even if it is the law, or to end all access to abortion, as the woman’s choice, not the government’s choice, even if that is the law too – or for something or other. This never works and some think they look like fools – even some of them think they look like fools – but they keep doing it. One man’s heroic and tragic failed resistance is another man’s childish temper tantrum – and along the way they’ve alienated Hispanic voters with their nastiness on immigration reform, and women with their talk of legitimate rape and how women’s bodies “really” work, and the young, and gays, and those who think science is useful, and those who think the filthy rich aren’t pulling their weight these days, and those who think the government ought to ensure the air is breathable and the water won’t catch fire. They’ve written off such people. Those people have returned the favor.

They have made a mess of things, but there’s nothing wrong with being conservative. Being cautious about change is a good thing. Being prudent with the limited funds available to government is a good thing. There might be such a thing as a good conservative, and a fine and sensible conservatism, which Andrew Sullivan once described this way:

I view conservatism as the practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change with the goal of maintaining the coherence and stability of a polity and a culture. It is a philosophy of moderation and balance, constantly alert to the manifold ways in which societies can, over time, lose their equilibrium. It is defined, along Edmund Burke’s foundational lines, as an opposition to ideological and theological politics in every form. And so it is a perfectly admirable conservative idea to respond to capitalism’s modern mercilessness by trying to support, encourage and help the traditional family structure and traditional religious practice. The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence. But it is equally conservative to note that a group in society – openly gay people – have emerged as a force and are best integrated within an existing institution – civil marriage – than by continued ostracism or new institutions like “civil unions” that have not stood the test of time.

Sullivan went on to argue we have that kind of conservatism in one seminal conservative leader:

On that pragmatic, non-ideological definition of conservatism, on a wide array of issues, Obama wins hands down.

Sullivan offered his proofs of that, in detail, but it comes down to this:

On almost every question – a stimulus one-third tax cuts, a healthcare reform based on the Heritage Foundation model, cap-and-trade for carbon, and solid support for Israel while trying to nudge it away from self-destruction – Obama is in a right-of-center consensus as of a decade ago. … As for temperament, the GOP is too consumed with cultural hatred to acknowledge the grace and calm of a man forced to grapple with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression with no help whatsoever from his opponents, a black man who has buried identity politics and remains a family man Republicans would fawn over if he were one of them.

Alas, the GOP is stuck in the 1984 of its own fetid imagination, incapable of acknowledging the real failures of the last Republican administration or the new, actual, vital questions we have to answer in this millennium: How do we make our healthcare system much more efficient? How do we best mitigate climate change? How do we tackle the problem of economic hyper-inequality? How do we advance US interests in a time of upheaval and revolution in the Arab world? How do we make government solvent?

It comes down to this:

We should be grateful a de facto moderate Republican is president while conservatism has a chance to regroup.

That was posted on July 30, 2012, and conservatism has had a chance to regroup, not that it did. Only one person has, and that would be Ohio’s current governor John Kasich – the former Ohio congressman of many a term. He should have been down-to-earth boring – after all, he grew up in Pittsburgh, in McKees Rocks of all places, and one side of his family was Czech and the other side Croatian. You don’t get much more down to earth than that. Those of us who also grew up in the Czech enclaves on the north side of Pittsburgh, at roughly the same time, know that. You don’t put on airs. There’s no point. But somehow, after congress, Kasich ended up at Lehman Brothers’ investment banking division in Columbus as a managing director. He was playing in the big leagues. And after seven years there it was over – Lehman Brothers was gone in a puff of smoke as the whole economy imploded – so he ended up with his own show on Fox News, offering their usual blend of contempt for government and greedy workers, and cheering for the captains of industry – the few guys at the very top, the really important people. He was no longer boring.

The people of Ohio elected Kasich governor anyway – after which he and his shiny new Republican legislature went about privatizing everything in sight and going after the public sector unions – excoriating teachers in particular, along with cops and firefighters and road workers and whatnot. Suddenly there was a new law stripping them all of their collective bargaining rights. After all they were useless folks. None of them ever “created wealth” and they certainly weren’t job creators. They had no right to demand more money or any sort of benefits package or retirement plan. They just sucked up money, money that should go to tax cuts for corporations or the wealthy. One has to make the state business-friendly after all.

Scott Walker had done the same thing in Wisconsin and found himself facing a recall election. He survived but many members of his shiny new Republican legislature didn’t. Kasich got off easy – the people of Ohio gathered the necessary signatures and forced a vote on the new law. They repealed it by popular vote. Too many people knew teachers, personally, and too many of them also kind of liked cops and firefighters – and no one really had a gripe about the workers who fill the potholes in summer and plow the snow off the roads in winter. They got their collective bargaining rights back. Kasich may never work at Fox News again.

This made the national news for a time but then Ohio returned to the bland obscurity of the kind of place where nothing much ever happens – just how they like it there. Let everyone else get all hot and bothered. But something happened. John Kasich, without any indication he had ever read one word Andrew Sullivan ever wrote, decided he could be that hypothetical good conservative who was also a Republican. The New York Times’ Trip Gabriel in late 2013 reported on that:

In his grand Statehouse office beneath a bust of Lincoln, Gov. John R. Kasich let loose on fellow Republicans in Washington.

“I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

“You know what?” he said. “The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the WPA.”

Ever since Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government in an attempt to remove funding for President Obama’s health care law Republican governors have been trying to distance themselves from Washington.

Kasich regrouped:

Once a leader of the conservative firebrands in Congress under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, Mr. Kasich has surprised and disarmed some former critics on the left with his championing of Ohio’s disadvantaged, which he frames as a matter of Christian compassion.

He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities – balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education – but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.

He also told his conservative Republican state legislature to stuff it. Ohio would accept that Medicaid money that was part of the Affordable Care Act.

This is odd, or maybe too odd:

He still angers many on the left; he signed a budget in June that cut revenues to local governments and mandates that women seeking an abortion listen to the fetal heartbeat. Democrats see his centrist swing as mere calculation, a prelude to a tough re-election fight.

“This is someone who realized he had to get to the center and chose Medicaid as the issue,” said Danny Kanner, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association. “That doesn’t erase the first three years of his governorship when he pursued polices that rewarded the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.”

Kasich shrugged:

The governor dismissed the notion that his Medicaid decision was political. “I have an opportunity to do good – to lift people – and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “You know what?” he added, using a phrase he utters before aiming a jab. “Let the chips fall where they may.”

Add this:

He supported President Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban while in Congress in 1994, and he teamed with Ralph Nader to close corporate tax loopholes.

In the interview in his office, he criticized a widespread conservative antipathy toward government social programs, which regards the safety net as enabling a “culture of dependency.”

Mr. Kasich, who occasionally sounds more like an heir to Lyndon B. Johnson than to Ronald Reagan, urged sympathy for “the lady working down here in the doughnut shop that doesn’t have any health insurance – think about that, if you put yourself in their shoes.”

He said it made no sense to turn down $2.5 billion in federal Medicaid funds over the next two years, a position backed by state hospitals and Ohio businesses.

One can be conservative, but there’s no need to be stupid about it:

“For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us,” Mr. Kasich said in a February speech, echoing the Bible, “I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.” …

The governor cast a cold eye on hard-liners in his party, especially in Washington. “Nowhere in life do we not compromise and give.”

Andrew Romano offers this:

The GOP is at a turning point. For the past six years, Washington Republicans have Just Said No – to Obama, to spending, to governing itself – without offering voters much of an alternative vision. But now what? Deficits are shrinking. Jobs are returning. The GOP controls both houses of Congress and stands a good chance of recapturing the White House. How should a Republican run, and lead, in post-recession, post-Obama America?

The Scott Walker model – crushing the unions, opposing immigration reform, rejecting Medicaid money, austerity above all else – will always appeal to the GOP base. But it may be too 2010 for 2016: a hard-right roadmap that would scare off swing voters and prove impossible for any president to implement.

Then there’s Kasich.

He may be what conservatives need right now:

Fifteen years ago, George W. Bush steered the GOP out of a similar dead end – Newt Gingrich, the shutdown, impeachment – by branding himself a compassionate conservative. “It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need,” Bush argued at the time. “It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results.” His brother Jeb is now saying a lot of the same things.

Kasich can outdo the third Bush:

The real bet Kasich is making in Ohio – the bet he would be making if he ran for president – is that he can do compassion better than Bush, too. “The old way” – compassionate conservatism 1.0 – “would have been going into a prison and talking to inmates or praying with them or whatever,” he told me. “A ‘woe is us’ kind of thing. But in Ohio, we’re innovating with our prison system.” (Kasich has implemented policies that help inmates reintegrate into their communities; he also wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences.) “I believe you can solve more problems – probably with less money – if you apply your resources more effectively.” … His gospel doesn’t stop with spending cuts. He wants conservatives to finally walk the walk on social welfare, too.

Romero sees hope for conservatives here:

It’s a forward-looking but still fundamentally conservative message that might make more sense in 2016 – and beyond – than tea party talking points and reactionary red meat. There’s a reason, after all, why Jeb has now taken to calling himself an “inclusive conservative.” But what if the right messenger for the moment wasn’t burdened with a lot of Bush family baggage? What if he hadn’t been making money on Wall Street for the entire Obama presidency, but had been implementing his reforms instead? And what if he were just re-elected – by more than 30 percentage points – in the one state Republicans absolutely can’t afford to lose on Election Day? (No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.)

Could John Kasich – provocative, self-important and more than a little abrasive – actually be the GOP’s secret weapon?

At least John Kasich thinks so.

Fine, but others don’t think so:

Dining with a group of influential pro-growth conservatives at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan on Wednesday – economists Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore were in attendance – Kasich voiced his support for Medicaid and for renewing a spirit of bipartisanship within the Republican party. Fox News hosts Bill Hemmer and John Stossel, and Gristedes Foods founder John Catsimatidis were also on hand.

Kasich, a former nine-term congressman who won a resounding reelection victory in November, is eyeing a presidential bid but, at the dinner’s close, there was little appetite for a Kasich presidency among those who’d assembled to hear him.

The governor showed his prickly side during a testy back-and-forth with Manhattan Institute health-care scholar Avik Roy, who has provided advice to several of the potential 2016 contenders. “Is it fair to say you support repealing Obamacare except for the Medicaid expansion?” Roy asked. Kasich answered in the affirmative.

“Obamacare’s a bad idea because it’s top-down and does not control costs,” Kasich said. Roy interjected again, “You’re saying Obamacare is top-down government. Is Medicaid not top-down government?”

Kasich appeared to view the remark as a jab at Medicaid recipients. “Maybe you think we should put them in prison. I don’t,” he told Roy. “I don’t think that’s a conservative position. Because the reality is, if you don’t treat the drug addicted and the mentally ill and the working poor, you’re gonna have them and they’re gonna be a big cost to society.”

That’s what Andrew Sullivan, the devout Catholic and a conservative, had been saying three years earlier, so Sullivan wouldn’t have been surprised by this:

The governor took heat from his fellow conservatives two years ago when he bucked Ohio’s Republican legislature to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The reason he offered for his decision further inflamed their passions. “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” Kasich said at the time. “You better have a good answer.”

The man can piss people off, and that’s a problem:

He is the governor of a swing state with a strong record of achievement who has been a part of the Republican sweep of the Midwest that, in 2014, finally captured Illinois. But the governor’s remarks on Wednesday didn’t stoke much desire from the conservative crowd for a Kasich candidacy, even as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has faltered and his fellow Midwestern governor, Indiana’s Mike Pence, has shown few signs of launching a bid.

But for Kasich, who is 62, who was first elected to Congress in 1978, and who hosted a successful show on the Fox News Channel before he ran for governor, that may not matter. “I have no regrets whatsoever about my political career,” he said last night.

Salon’s Joan Walsh adds this:

Just like Kasich is an actual reformist conservative who blends traditional GOP tax and budget cutting with maverick stands like expanding Medicaid and criminal justice reform – compared with supposedly reformist Bush, whose economic program consists of warmed over supply side policies – Kasich is what Scott Walker pretends to be: A practical Midwestern governor of a hugely important swing state with a track record of governing.

Kasich’s state is also rebounding well from the recession, while Walker’s is last in Midwestern job creation and first in the nation in middle-class wage decline. So, why is Walker still considered Bush’s top primary challenger, especially for the donor class, while Kasich can’t get started?

She had no good answer:

It made me think about why the bumbling Walker inspires such passion from the donor class: It’s that he decimated public sector unions, is trying to do the same to private sector unions with “Right to Work”, while slashing holes in Wisconsin’s safety net by cutting Badgercare and rejecting Medicaid expansion. So his lackluster record, his state’s struggling economy and his stumbling campaign can be forgiven – to a point.

Meanwhile Kasich, the two-term Midwestern governor of a crucial swing state, who is presiding over a rebounding economy and has made innovative policy choices (while cutting taxes) can’t get any donor love, because he compromised with the state’s unions – admittedly after voters repealed his anti-union measures – and expanded Medicaid.

To recap: Walker is stumbling, Bush is widely viewed as a vulnerable frontrunner and Ted Cruz is running for president of the he-man Obama haters club and scaring GOP pragmatists. It’s clearly time for a fresher face, and some journalists think it could be Kasich. Yet his refusal to apologize for expanding Medicaid or participate in bashing the poor makes him unacceptable to many in the donor class.

There you have it. John Kasich is not a good conservative. He’s only a good conservative in the pragmatic non-ideological sense, and conservatism is now an ideology, not practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change. That doesn’t seem to matter to what Walsh calls the donor class. Ideology matters. Whatever John Kasich is, we need another name for it. There can be no good conservatives now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Good Conservative

  1. Rick says:

    When Andrew Sullivan said of Obama…

    …a black man who has buried identity politics and remains a family man Republicans would fawn over if he were one of them.

    …he was pretty much right.

    One of the main reasons Republicans dislike Obama is not so much because he’s black — Hell, they have their own black people! — or that they disagree with him on all these things — Hell, they disagree with each other on almost everything! — but because of who it is that put him in power: Democrats. After all, if they were to admit that he’s done good things, even things they invented, like Obamacare and carbon cap-and-trade, the question would then be, what do they stand for? What does the opposition have to offer, other than what their opponents do?

    As for John Kasich, Trip Gabriel of the New York Times says:

    He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities – balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education – but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.

    At least compared to most of his fellow Republicans, Kasich comes off sounding like a saint, although not quite.

    Yes, I would think he’s right to expand programs for the mentally ill, and in backing Cleveland’s plan to raise local taxes to improve schools, but did it not occur to him that “balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education” is misguided, in that local governments have a harder time borrowing than big state governments, and that local economies have much less leeway in raising taxes to improve schools? I’d see him as more enlightened if he recognized that the state and the locals are in the same boat, and then made sure the state kept helping the locals, at least until the economy came back.

    What’s also sort of telling is this back-and-forth between Kasich and Manhattan Institute health-care scholar Avik Roy:

    “Is it fair to say you support repealing Obamacare except for the Medicaid expansion?” Roy asked. Kasich answered in the affirmative.

    “Obamacare’s a bad idea because it’s top-down and does not control costs,” Kasich said. Roy interjected again, “You’re saying Obamacare is top-down government. Is Medicaid not top-down government?”

    Kasich appeared to view the remark as a jab at Medicaid recipients. “Maybe you think we should put them in prison. I don’t,” he told Roy.

    God bless Kasich, who’s heart is sort of in the right place, but based solely on the terms he himself set up, he dodged Roy’s legitimate question, which, within the context, landed home. But the problem is the context. The real point is, Kasich is wrong to think Obamacare, which utilizes existing private-sector insurance companies, is top-down government. Britain’s National Health Service is top-down government; Obamacare is not. But Kasich also seems to have overlooked the fact that Obamacare has, so far, indeed controlled costs.

    Joan Walsh hints at Kasich’s biggest problem:

    Just like Kasich is an actual reformist conservative who blends traditional GOP tax and budget cutting with maverick stands like expanding Medicaid and criminal justice reform — compared with supposedly reformist Bush, whose economic program consists of warmed over supply side policies — Kasich is what Scott Walker pretends to be: A practical Midwestern governor of a hugely important swing state with a track record of governing.

    The key here is the term “reformist conservative”. Has anyone else noticed that the word “reformist”, as used here, seems to be defined as “leaning toward liberalism”? So yeah, I have no problem with that, but that’s because I’m a liberal. I doubt Republicans would see it that way.

    This man is sort of like Saul on the road to Damascus, but before he got knocked off his horse by that epiphany. Kasich’s Catch-22 is that, the more “reformist” he is, the less “conservative” he is, and the less Republicans will want him to be their candidate — and goodness knows, we Democrats don’t need him, mostly because we’re afraid that any serious alternative to Hillary will just queer the deal, and if we were looking for an alternative, it would probably be a liberal with more Democratic mileage. At most, Kasich sounds like a man of potential talent who’s about to become unemployed and looking for a job, in a job market where there are no jobs looking for men like him.

    As for the Republicans, they’re in a similar situation. After all, the heart wants what the heart wants, and the Republican hearts seem to be longing for a constituency that no longer exists. Republicans in search of a constituency are like polar bears, in search of ever-dwindling ice flows. As those patches of ice disappear, so do those bears.

    Maybe instead of the elephant, the Republicans should change their party symbol to a polar bear.

    Rick

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