Ohio Gov. John Kasich was asked the first question of last Wednesday's Republican presidential debate and he came out swinging. "My great concern," he exclaimed, "is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job." It is true that most of Kasich's opponents have advanced numerous nutty opinions. What's interesting about Kasich's positioning, however, is that his own views aren't all that different from theirs.
Kasich is occupying the same political space as Jon Hunstman in the 2012 Republican primaries and Joe Lieberman in the 2004 Democratic primaries. That is, he's running as the member of his party willing to tell the truth — that everyone else has gone off the rails. As a strategy for winning the nomination, it's an obvious disaster. Trying to look moderate and less partisan can be a good approach in the general election, but it's a guaranteed loser in a presidential primary, as evidenced by the tepid reaction Kasich has received from voters and donors alike.
In Kasich's case, the strategy is borne out of necessity. As governor of Ohio, Kasich is responsible for one genuinely admirable act of political courage. Republican orthodoxy currently holds that states should not accept the Medicaid expansion that was severed from existing Medicaid funding by the Supreme Court. Sure, the Medicaid expansion was funded entirely by the federal government in the first years and at least at a 90 percent level thereafter — far more generous terms than the original Medicaid program. And sure, refusing the expansion is bad for the state's economy and will mean unnecessary suffering and death for poor people. Nonetheless, Republicans have bravely stood up for the "freedom" of poor people to go without adequate medical care.
To his credit, Kasich supported the Medicaid expansion in Ohio. In itself, this might not have destroyed his chances of winning the nomination, although it was a serious problem. But he did himself no favors in the way in which he defended his decision. "Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small," Kasich said in the first GOP debate in August, "but he's going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer."
I think Kasich is right about the moral necessity of the Medicaid expansion, and I also agree with his implicit point that for most Christian conservatives the political application of their faith has a tendency to begin and end in people's bedrooms. I, however, am not a Republican primary voter or donor. People who are Republican primary voters and/or prospective donors are unlikely to respond well to someone calling a central tenet of party doctrine immoral.
Kasich's decision to run as the Last Sane Republican, as well as his laudatory decision to support the Medicaid expansion, might create the impression that he is a representative of that nearly extinct breed, the genuinely moderate Republican. But this would be highly misleading.
For example, in his opening volley against his opponents, Kasich railed against "tax schemes that don't add up, that put our kids in a deeper hole than they are today." But is Kasich's tax plan any different? Not really. It might be more realistic than, say, Ben Carson's plan to fund the entire federal government with a 10 percent or 15 percent flat tax, but that's like saying that Las Vegas is cooler than Phoenix in July.
Kasich's tax plan is standard-issue contemporary Republicanism, a combination of massive upward income distribution and magical thinking. As with his opponents, the centerpiece of his plan are massively regressive tax cuts: slashing the top marginal rate from 39.6 percent to 28 percent, cutting capital gains taxes, and eliminating the estate tax (which kicks in at amounts of $5.43 million per person.) This plan would blow a massive hole in the budget that would require either huge deficits or cuts in spending for the poor that Kasich has correctly described as immoral. Nothing about this is new: He has been equally obsessed with cutting the tax burden of the upper class as both a legislator and governor.
And not only is Kasich dishonestly suggesting that his tax plan could be consistent with balancing the budget, at Wednesday's debate he reiterated his support for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. This is an outright crackpot idea that would force the federal government to cut spending and/or raise taxes during recessions, a disaster that would cause untold misery every time the economy went through a downturn.
In other words, his acceptance of the Medicaid expansion notwithstanding, Kasich is essentially on the same page as his allegedly nutty opponents. The fact that he's perceived as too left-wing to win the Republican nomination says more about the competition than it does about him.