Two caucuses and two primaries, in states containing less than four percent of the nation’s population, have already narrowed the Republican presidential race down to three men with extremist views on a wide variety of issues: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. Unless something truly strange happens (even by the standards of this strange election campaign), one of those three men will be the Republican nominee when Americans vote 257 days from now.
Two weeks ago, I devoted my Verdict column—“Republicans Will Not Seriously Try to Sell Marco Rubio as a Moderate, Will They?”—to explaining why Senator Rubio’s status as the preferred candidate of his party’s establishment should not lead anyone to conclude that he is a moderate in any meaningful sense of that word. On the issues, Rubio is as extreme as almost anyone who has ever run for the presidency, and on some issues (especially tax cuts for the rich and abortion restrictions), he is even more extreme.
I noted at the beginning of that column that I expected it to be the first of “a multi-part series in which I look at . . . other candidates to determine whether they can claim to call themselves moderates in any meaningful sense.” With the election season winnowing out so many candidates so quickly, however, it is no longer necessary to shine a light on Jeb Bush’s faux-moderation, and most other ersatz moderates have also gone by the wayside.
The one remaining candidate who (now) claims to be a moderate is Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich was a surprise second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary, but otherwise, he has been invisible. He polled 3.6 percent of the vote in Nevada’s caucuses earlier this week. His campaign is running on fumes, and he will almost certainly be forced to drop out after next week’s so-called Super Tuesday primaries.
In a sense, therefore, there is arguably no reason to bother discussing Kasich’s actual views, which contrast so starkly with his claimed moderation. Perhaps my series of columns on this subject should consist of exactly one entry. In fact, however, there are two good reasons to assess Kasich’s pose as a moderate.
First, for those of us who actually care about policy debates and the impact that misleading packaging can have on real-world outcomes, it is important to call out dishonesty even among those who are not running for president.
Second, there are already right-wing pundits who are touting the 63-year-old Midwesterner as a vice presidential candidate. With any of the three front-runners so clearly on the right fringe of nearly every issue, balancing the ticket with a supposed ideological moderate will be a priority. That Kasich is the governor of an always-important swing state raises his stature even further.
Kasich, moreover, understands where his future viability lies. He knows that January’s not-quite endorsement from the editors of The New York Times harms him with Republican primary voters, but it will position him perfectly to sell himself as a moderate in the general election campaign. He is, in fact, already having some success in convincing media outlets that he deserves that label. (One observer who is not buying Kasich’s re-branding is Daily Show alumna Samantha Bee, who ran a brutal four-minute segment on Kasich on her new show earlier this week.)
As I noted in my earlier column discussing Marco Rubio, “Looking moderate next to Trump or Cruz is like looking fat next to a supermodel.” By that standard, then, Kasich too claims to be a moderate. Yet if we actually look at the content of Kasich’s policy positions, we find an unrelenting, extremist conservative career politician.
Kasich’s Flip-Flopping and Careful Posturing Should Not Fool Anyone
Kasich came to fame as a lieutenant in the Newt Gingrich congresses of the 1990s, happily moving the party to the right on nearly every issue. Even so, he has lately been trying to shade his stance on various issues in an attempt to appear less extreme.
For example, Kasich has received wide praise for bucking his party’s worst elements by accepting a Medicaid expansion for Ohio, which was available through the Affordable Care Act. Although that was clearly the right decision, it is only “moderate” in the sense that Kasich did not go along with a scorched-earth strategy that most of the rest of his party embraced. The expansion itself was initially paid for entirely by the federal government, and the most that Ohio will ever pay for the expansion is ten percent of the total cost.
The people covered by the expansion, moreover, would have been left in a hole between then-existing Medicaid (which covered only the poorest people) and the individual health care policies that are available to middle-income people through the ACA. Even a very conservative governor should have had no problem with this policy, and without the label “Obamacare,” none would have even considered turning it down.
The only credit that Kasich should receive for signing that expansion, therefore, is that he proved that he is not a monster. That is better than the alternative, of course, but it hardly makes him a moderate. Moreover, he has said that that the ACA will be repealed “flat out” if Republicans control the House, Senate, and presidency. That most certainly includes his wished-for presidency, as he has made clear that he favors the ACA’s repeal.
Therefore, although Kasich has done the minimally humane thing by accepting money for his state under a law that he opposes, he still has indicated that he will support that law’s repeal.
As I noted in my column two weeks ago, being immoderate does not necessarily mean being wrong. There are surely many people who think that Kasich and others are right to want to repeal the ACA. (Obviously, I am not among them.) But that position is not moderate, especially because there is no moderate alternative that would prevent millions of people from losing health insurance coverage after repeal of the ACA.
In any event, Kasich’s attempts to finesse his stance on the ACA—he wants credit for taking advantage of it, then he says that it might not be repealed, but he wants it to be repealed—reveals the opposite of the straight-talking simple Midwestern image that he is trying to cultivate.
Indeed, Kasich’s inability to stick to a position on the ACA is repeated in his stated views on abortion. He claims that he is in favor of banning all abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the pregnant woman. Yet he signed a bill in Ohio that had no such exceptions. More recently, he signed a bill that requires ultrasounds for any woman wanting an abortion, while expressing “concerns” about another bill that would restrict abortion rights and has no exceptions for rape or incest.
What would a moderate view be on abortion? Perhaps it would require that a person who thinks that abortion is wrong at least stop short of imposing intrusive procedures that are medically unnecessary, or that put gag orders on a doctor who might need to discuss abortion as one option with her patient. And even in the very immoderate range of thought within which Kasich resides, he apparently opposes more extreme measures only because they are clearly unconstitutional.
This fake moderation dance is also evident from Kasich’s attempt to have it both ways on climate change. At least he is not in the Rubio “I’m not a scientist, man” camp of denying basic scientific knowledge about evolution and global warming, He acknowledges that climate change is happening, yet he opposes having the Environmental Protection Agency regulate emissions to mitigate future disasters. If one can be labeled moderate after saying, “I see that there’s a problem, but I’m against solving it,” then words mean nothing.
As it turns out, Kasich has even tried to change his personality to try to win the presidency. Prior to reinventing himself as an aw-shucks neighborly fella from the middle of the country, Kasich was known for having a rather nasty temper, for not forgetting slights, and for being highly confrontational. It is to his credit, I suppose, that he is now able to keep his worst instincts in check, but his authenticity as a regular guy is hard to take seriously.
Foreign Policy, Immigration, and the Economy
What about other issues? Kasich has no foreign policy experience to speak of, and he has simply said “me too” to the most extreme views of his competitors in the presidential race on foreign policy and immigration issues.
For example, when President Obama announced his plan earlier this week to shut down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Kasich could have noted that this is an idea that should have no partisan valence whatsoever. The prisoners who could not be transferred to another country would be moved to a high-security detention facility in the United States.
Rather than simply admit that such facilities are the most secure on Earth, however, Kasich immediately pandered to fear and panic, saying that “[t]hese are people, some of them are the worst of the worst. Why would we send them into our country?” Again, this is not to say that there are no people who are even more extreme than Kasich on this issue, but there is nothing moderate about immediately condemning a plan that has already taken into account the concerns that Kasich pretends to care about, or trying to make it sound as if the president plans to release terrorists into American neighborhoods.
On immigration, Kasich similarly offers extreme views, mouthing the nonsense from last fall about the dangers of Syrian refugees being terrorists, and calling on the president to ban such refugees from the country until some unknown day in the future when his concerns are satisfied. Even more ominously, Kasich has long supported a constitutional amendment to end “birthright citizenship,” which puts him squarely in league with the nativists who drive the extreme anti-immigration agenda within his party.
But it is Kasich’s economic views that are actually the most immoderate of all his policy positions. Kasich was chairman of the House Budget Committee during his stint in Congress, yet he actually totes around the hokey “national debt clock” that is so favored by alarmists on the right. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of budgetary policy should know that the scary-looking numbers on that clock are meaningless, yet Kasich gleefully plays into people’s worst fears about “bankrupting” the country and other baseless views.
Could one defend Kasich by saying that the national debt clock is merely a prop, and that he understands the damage that would come from trying to eliminate the debt? Unfortunately, he has made it clear that his substantive views are as uninformed as his symbolic gestures.
Kasich has vowed to balance the federal budget within eight years, which would require (in his own estimation) significant cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, as well as freezes—not as percentages of the economy, or after adjusting for population growth, but outright freezes—to the budgets of all non-defense discretionary spending programs.
If Kasich were truly a budget hawk, one would think that he would find at least moderate cuts in the defense budget, but he proposes no such thing. He also should not be proposing to eliminate the estate tax, especially at a time of heightened concern over growing inequality, and exactly when his budget would impose extreme austerity on the most vulnerable members of society.
Moreover, the rest of Kasich’s tax proposals mirror the immoderate upward income redistribution that his opponents favor. And his own numbers do not even add up unless one assumes that his tax cuts will result in increases in economic growth that are simply not supported by the economic evidence.
Finally, Kasich’s long-time hobbyhorse has been a federal balanced budget amendment. This would further hinder the government from responding adequately to future economic crises, because it would empower a minority of Congress to block any responses even to large-scale disasters. Kasich has, moreover, called for an unprecedented constitutional convention to pass such an amendment, a view that—as I noted in a Verdict column this past October—even the late Justice Antonin Scalia mocked.
In short, John Kasich’s supposed strong suit—budgetary policy—is the area in which he is actually among the least moderate Republicans. His views on the issues on which he has less (or no) expertise are either constantly changing or well within the same universe occupied by the extremists in his party. Even people who support those views cannot seriously argue that Kasich is a moderate.