Tuesday, July 21, 2015 – President Obama spoke to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars – in Pittsburgh this time. It was what everyone expected. The Iran deal makes sense. The military option is not the only option America has in world affairs, and it’s seldom the best option. What are John McCain and the rest of the Republicans thinking? Even Ronald Reagan knew better, and implicit in this was another question. What’s this America-is-always-wrong-and-Israel-is-always-right crap? He just didn’t put it that way – but it didn’t matter, because no one paid attention to this speech. He’s said all this before. And then he hopped on Air Force One and flew to New York for a final appearance on Jon Stewart’s show. People will pay attention to that. Manhattan is not Pittsburgh.
As Obama was speaking in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump was speaking at a retirement community in South Carolina – very old and very angry and very white people outraged at what “their” country has become. Everyone paid attention to that speech. It was far more entertaining:
Hours after South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called Donald Trump “the world’s biggest jackass” for questioning Arizona Sen. John McCain’s “war hero” status, the real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate responded by giving out Graham’s personal cellphone number. … Trump told the crowd that Graham once called “begging” him to put in a good word with “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show on which the billionaire businessman and “Celebrity Apprentice” host was a frequent guest.
Trump read aloud Graham’s private telephone number from a piece of paper at the podium.
“Maybe it’s an old number,” Trump told his supporters. “I don’t know, give it a shot.”
Lindsey Graham has changed his number. Trump also called him an idiot, but Graham is nothing special:
Earlier in the speech, Trump lobbed insults at both Graham and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who Trump said “put glasses on so people will think he’s smart – it just doesn’t work.”
“What a stiff,” Trump said of Graham. “He doesn’t seem like a very bright guy. He actually probably seems to me not as bright as Rick Perry. I think Rick Perry probably is smarter than Lindsey Graham.”
He lit into Jeb Bush too, but as with Obama, Trump has said all this before. All the other Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination are total losers. He’s a winner, and he’s rich – he’s really, really rich. That’s what America wants now, and by the way, everyone in government right now is a total loser. Elect him and you’ll be electing a winner, who will replace all the total losers in government with real winners. Imagine the first weeks of his administration as something like his reality show “The Apprentice” – he’ll say what’s necessary – “You’re Fired!” At least that seems to be the general idea. The crowd went wild. Then they went home and yelled at those kids to get off their lawn. That seems to be the theory of government at play here too.
This too was more of the same, but there was a simultaneous third event in Columbus, Ohio, which wasn’t more of the same:
Saying “big ideas change the world,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination Tuesday. Kasich, 63, launched his campaign at Ohio State University before a crowd of 2,000. The event marked the entry of a strong-willed and sometimes abrasive governor into a nomination race that now has 16 notable Republicans.
“I am here to ask you for your prayers, for your support, for your efforts because I have decided to run for president,” Kasich said in a scattered 43-minute speech packed with family anecdotes, historical references and calls for national renewal.
A veteran congressman as well as governor, Kasich told voters he is the only GOP candidate with experience in three broad areas of political leadership – the federal budget, national security and state government. He also spent nearly a decade at the Lehman Brothers financial services firm.
“I have the experience and the testing,” he said, “the testing which shapes you and prepares you for the most important job in the world, and I believe I know how to work and help restore this great United States.”
As budget chairman in the House, he became an architect of a deal in 1997 that balanced the federal budget.
Now in his second term in swing-state Ohio, he’s helped erase a budget deficit projected at nearly $8 billion when he entered office, boost Ohio’s rainy-day fund to a historic high and seen private-sector employment rebound to its pre-recession level.
That’s fine, but that’s not what was odd, not what was the same old Republican line:
Kasich embraces conservative ideals but bucks his party on occasion and disdains the Republican sport of bashing Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Visiting the early voting state of New Hampshire on Tuesday following his announcement, Kasich said his political career has taught him that the two parties must work together to get things done.
“I realized that purpose was more important than party,” Kasich said. “In my political career my whole vision is: How do we make changes and improve things for the people that we serve?”
That may not be bullshit, but he wasn’t always a rebel. He evolved in an odd way – from a former Ohio congressman of many a term. He actually 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 both government and greedy workers, cheering for the captains of industry – the few guys at the very top, the really important people.
The people of Ohio elected Kasich governor anyway – after which he and his new hyper-conservative 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 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. Those folks 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 decided he could work for everyone’s good and still be 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.”
Gabriel noted that ever since Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government in an attempt to defund Obamacare, Republican governors had been trying to distance themselves from Washington, but this was more than that:
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 own conservative Republican state legislature to stuff it. Ohio would accept that Medicaid money that was part of the Affordable Care Act.
This was odd or maybe too odd – he signed a budget that cut revenues to local governments and mandated that women seeking an abortion listen to the fetal heartbeat – and Democrats were suspicious:
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.”
But he is puzzling:
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.”
Then, in March of this year, there was this curious incident:
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 just who he is:
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.”
So now he’s the actual Christian running for president? That may be what he wants evangelical voters to assume, although they have a different view of Jesus. Jesus had the poor and hungry pee in a little cup – the mandatory drug test – otherwise, no loaves and fishes for them! He didn’t? This must depend on the translation.
The Atlantic’s Molly Ball points out the bigger problem here:
Erick Erickson, the RedState.com editor, has called him “a bully”; Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa, calls his candidacy “a non-starter for conservatives.” The conservative health-policy expert Avik Roy, writing in National Review, said last year, “The chances of John Kasich marrying Kate Upton are higher than the chances of John Kasich contending for the GOP nomination.”
Kasich’s transgressions against conservative orthodoxy are many. He supports the Common Core educational standards, which the right loathes; he says he would consider allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens; his state budgets have cut a lot of taxes, but raised others; and spending has increased on his watch. Conservatives’ primary complaint is that Kasich singlehandedly accepted the Obamacare-Medicaid expansion for his state, thus making him complicit in the most loathed policy of the loathed Democratic president.
But Kasich’s heresy is bigger than these specific ideological transgressions. It is tonal – he has golfed with Obama and generally declines to attack the president personally; he has justified his Medicaid decision on the basis of Christian compassion for the poor. And it is philosophical – Kasich is witheringly dismissive of the anti-government absolutists in his own party. “There’s a sort of fantasy out there, or a myth, that we can just cut all the government and that’ll give us our lower taxes,” he told me when I visited him in Ohio in February for a profile I was writing. “It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just get rid of all these programs and say, ‘People, just spontaneously do it!'”
This guy doesn’t buy the standard conservative argument that almost all government aid could be replaced by private charity:
“We do need to reawaken people” to help their fellow man, he said. “But that doesn’t mean government just disappears.” His definition of conservatism, he told me, is lifting people up by giving them the tools to help themselves. “People in Ohio are more hopeful [now] that they’re included. What’s better than that?” he said. “I think that’s conservatism. If it isn’t, it ought to be called that.”
No one knows what to call it:
Kasich’s current pitch to GOP voters rests on these twin pillars of trickle-down economics and Christian compassion. New Day for America, the nonprofit backing him, has been airing television ads that tout his work balancing the budget in the 1990s – he was the Budget Committee chairman under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich – alongside footage of regular people and the slogan, “John Kasich’s for us.”
That may confuse people, and Ball sees the gamble here:
Is there a constituency in the Republican primary electorate for Kasich’s philosophy? Some are now comparing him to Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who ran to the left of the Republican field in 2012 and failed to make much of a mark. Kasich has retained the same strategist, John Weaver, who worked for Huntsman; after I quoted Weaver in my profile of Kasich, the strategist, who had not previously met Kasich, reached out to offer his services, he told me. Weaver, a former adviser to John McCain, is also persona non grata on the right for having worked for Democrats and for calling the GOP a “party of cranks.”
In profile, Huntsman and Kasich are similar: conservative pragmatists tarred by association with Obama. (Huntsman served as Obama’s first ambassador to China. Unforgettably and unaccountably, he spoke Chinese during a GOP debate in 2012.) But in temperament, they are very different. Huntsman, the heir to a vast fortune, exuded upper-class pretension as he lectured voters on what he called the “trust deficit.” Kasich, the son of a Pittsburgh mail carrier, has a feisty, irreverent, determinedly unpretentious demeanor. He can seem charmingly unpolished – or he can seem like a jerk, as when he harangued two fellow Republican governors and a wealthy donor during a meeting hosted by the Koch brothers.
But don’t underestimate him:
It’s true that he’s an instinctive and unscripted politician, but he may not be quite as much of a loose cannon as he appears; he’s capable of being disciplined when he needs to be, and his outbursts may be calculated to feed his image as authentic and down to earth. The example of Donald Trump, who supports universal healthcare while questioning the president’s birthplace and noisily insulting other Republicans, proves that there’s a segment of the GOP base that doesn’t really care what a candidate stands for as long as behaves in a reckless and impolite way.
Kasich has obviously been watching Donald Trump. Kasich can be reckless and impolite if that’s what the people want, but he’ll slip a little common sense and common decency in there on the side. That may not be conservatism, but he thinks it ought to be called that. They’ll never know what hit them.
Neither will the liberals. 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, back on July 30, 2012, 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. … The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence.
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 – as Sullivan went on to explain.
That doesn’t seem to matter to the base of the party – Donald Trump’s constituency – and to what might be called the donor class – Jeb Bush’s constituency. Ideology matters. Whatever John Kasich is, we need another name for it. There can be no good conservatives now, unless he’s one of them. That made this day not more of the same at all.