Honest John

by Jonathan Chait | July 12, 1998

I am prepared to vote for my first Republican, John Kasich," read a letter to The New York Times Magazine in May. "I have the impression that he favors no-nonsense politics, equity for the common man, and fiscal restraint, a rare combination in this politically combative era." The letter-writer, Michael Pivarnik of Indiana, Pennsylvania, received this impression from reading a Times Magazine profile of Kasich written by R.W. Apple Jr. Kasich, the article explained, has hardscrabble roots, having grown up in a small town called McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, where he acquired "a populist's sympathy for the little guy."

But you didn't have to read the Times profile to acquire an appreciation for Kasich's down-home virtue--indeed it's been the theme of nearly everything that has been written about him. A profile in George revealed that Kasich "places his trust in the human heart, not in the corridors of power," and that "he has not lost faith in the basic bucket-brigade goodness of Americans, the binding energy that infused towns like McKees Rocks." A New Yorker profile from last year reported that Kasich's inspiration to fight for balanced budgets came at a gas station in his adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when "a stranger at the next pump said, 'Hey, Kasich, why don't you stop complaining and do something about it?'" From this tale we were supposed to infer several things: Kasich is humble enough not to mind when constituents brusquely call out his last name; his views on the issues derive from the people; and he even pumps his own gas.

Eventually, if you read enough of Kasich's press clippings, they begin to blend together in a gauzy haze of apple-pie bromides. John Kasich is charming, energetic, and boyishly handsome. He is deeply religions yet without a trace of sanctimony. He is a plainspoken regular guy who believes in honest budgetary discipline. He listens to rock music and wears goofy ties.

The appeal of Kasich isn't intellectual; it's characterological. "I'm not anti-government," he has written. "I'm a blue-collar kid from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania." It's as if any question about his views could be answered with an affirmation of his identity. Or, as another flattering Kasich profile--in The Cleveland Plain Dealer--began, "This is all you need to know about U.S. Rep. John Kasich: His ex-wife's mother votes for him." This is how you should size up a blind date for your sister, not the chairman of the House Budget Committee and an all-but-announced candidate for president.

One of John Kasich's assets is a heartland accent that's just strong enough to convey working-class authenticity. When he talks to you, he maintains eve contact and regularly pauses to repeat your first name in a Dale Carnegie way, even if he just learned it. When he senses disagreement, he is quick to point out that he is interested in your input.

But Kasich does not owe his popularity solely to his folksiness. After coming to Congress in 1982, he built a reputation as a principled advocate of fiscal rectitude. He put a higher priority on deficit reductions than on tax cuts, and he insisted that any tax cuts be "paid for" with spending cuts. This infuriated supply-side conservatives--the Reagan acolytes who believe that tax cuts are always good and that they should not be contingent upon spending cuts. The supply-siders have a rich vocabulary of derisive terms to describe Republicans who think otherwise--"green eyeshades," "castor oil," etc.--and they have applied many of them to Kasich. "He became a bean counter, deficit hawk, spending cutter," recalls Lawrence Kudlow, an economist for American Skandia Life Insurance and a leading supply-sider.

And, in fact, Kasich's political courage sometimes bordered on the masochistic. During the budget negotiations that followed the Republican takeover of Congress, Kasich insisted that any budget deal be based on economic assumptions used by the Congressional Budget Office rather than the slightly more optimistic projections of the White House's Office of Management and Budget. This seemingly obscure technical dispute was immensely important: The CBO calculation of slower economic growth entailed billions more in spending cuts in order to eliminate the budget deficit. So, in effect, Kasich was making it more difficult for the Republicans to reach their balanced budget nirvana.

Some of Kasich's crusades have even won the support of Democrats. And not just congenitally bipartisan Southern Democrats: Honest-to-goodness lefties liked Kasich, too. He joined Berkeley Representative Ron Dellums in trying to defund the B-2 bomber--which several government studies exposed as nearly useless--despite heavy lobbying by contractors. He also formed a coalition spanning from Ralph Nader to Grover Norquist to denounce "corporate welfare," or government subsidies that benefit business.

Kasich's opposition to corporate welfare has a famously quixotic quality--he is like a John Grisham hero without the law degree, bravely confronting the forces of corporate greed. Not surprisingly, it is the central narrative of the iconography that has grown around him. But only part of the story is widely known, and the rest of that tale is a good place to begin understanding Kasich.

When the GOP opened the 103rd Congress in 1995, Kasich had responsibility for drawing up the budget for the House of Representatives. This meant finding hundreds of billions of dollars in budgetary savings to eliminate the deficit and cut taxes. In order to head off Democratic complaints that the GOP was gutting benefits tot the poor and middle class in order to benefit the wealthy, Kasich instructed the Ways and Means Committee to find $25 billion in savings over seven years from breaks for business in the tax code--a move that drew widespread plaudits.

But Kasich couldn't require the committee to make the cuts he wanted. The final word belonged to the chairman, Bill Archer, who does not exactly hew to the Naderite position on corporate welfare. ("There's no such thing," he said at the time.) Archer decided to find savings from other sources. For instance, Archer proposed to liberalize rules that govern when and how corporations could take money from employee pension funds. Through clever accounting, this did indeed raise revenue--since companies would have to pay taxes on whatever they withdrew--but it was a net benefit for business, not a sacrifice. This was typical of Archer's corporate welfare "cuts." Yet Kasich not only cooperated, he boldly declared that the Republicans had proven their sincere interest in shared sacrifice. "This is a message to people who work on assembly lines and in convenience stores that everyone has given," he proclaimed. Even today, Kasich points to this episode as a victory over corporate welfare. "Bill Archer went along," he told me. (President Clinton eventually vetoed the bill.)

Since then, Kasich's anti-corporate-welfare zealotry has seemed to wane. In May of this year, Kasich again devised the House Republicans' budget, giving him an opportunity to present his vision of government in its purest incarnation. This time, the budget contained not a dollar of cuts in corporate subsidies. Kasich is no doubt sincere in his opposition to corporate welfare. Genuine conservatives believe that, when the government extends preferential treatment to certain businesses, it violates free market principles. But, as his bid for the White House approaches, the cost of holding to principle has risen. "We [Republicans] are divided internally;" Kasich explained to me a bit sheepishly. "It takes a long time to get rid of anything."

Meanwhile Kasich displayed no such restraint when it came to trimming the oilier, more traditional kind of welfare, His May budget launched an assault on spending programs that benefit low-income earners. Kasich proposed tens of billions of dollars in new spending cuts focused mainly on the poorest beneficiaries. More than half of his entitlement cuts came from means-tested programs that mostly benefit low-income persons, even though these constitute less than a quarter of all entitlement spending. He proposed cutting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the block grant to states dial replaced welfare two years ago. He proposed cutting food stamps for people on workfare and eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children, a tax break for low-income workers. Kasich, in other words, planned to raise taxes on the working poor.

This is riot such a shocking thing to find in a Republican budget. But, remember, Kasich "is no country club Republican," as the Times put it. This is the kid from McKees Rocks, who last year said, "I'm really concerned about the growing differences between rich and poor in this country." Indeed, even many Republicans found Kasich's cuts hard to stomach, and they forced him to withdraw Iris budgetary blueprint almost immediately. Here is where the archetypal Kasich would have drawn tip another set of spending cuts, a hold plan that attacked corporate welfare and spared no one. And here is what Kasich actually did: nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. He still demanded $100 billion in spending cuts. He just didn't say what he thought they should be. Kasich left it tip to other House committees to figure out the details.

It was a curious retreat for a man so famous for his willingness to slav sacred cows in the budget. Yet it is fast becoming a pattern. As Kasich's presidential campaign cranks up, he has come to see the virtues of the fiscal free lunches that he once so famously refused to abide. The only reason this drift has gone undetected is that it has largely manifested itself in the byzantine realm of budgetary scoring rules.

The great triumph of the budget hawks came in 1990, when President Bush and the Democratic Congress agreed to a set of rules designed to thwart profligacy. One of those rules says that, when Congress adopts a particular spending increase or tax cut, it must offset that with a spending cut or tax hike of equal value. This means that the budget surplus cannot "pay for" new spending or tax cuts. One might question the efficacy of this restraint, but it makes perfect sense to the budget hawks of the world. Any new drain on federal revenue is permanent, they reason, while the surplus is temporary. Therefore, using the surplus to offset new spending would create future budget deficits when the surplus runs dry. Kasich now wants to subvert the rule, so he can divvy up the surplus into personal retirement accounts--a check every American can put in the bank. (Just call it your Kasich Account and remember to vote in 2000.)

Another of the 1990 budget rules forbids Congress from paying for new spending programs or tax cuts by cutting discretionary spending, which is the general pot of money that funds items as varied as the IRS, the Coast Guard, and Head Start. Since Congress doles out its discretionary budget every year cutting future discretionary spending is a political flee ride--all you have to do is promise that future Congresses will spend less, without saying how. And so, sensibly, the rules forbid this cop-out. If you want to give somebody money, you have to identify who is going to pay for it--not just next year but for as long as the program or tax cut lasts. Now Kasich has quietly proposed to gut this limitation, too.

Elsewhere Kasich increasingly resembles the supply-side Republicans from whom he once distinguished himself. The Republican leadership is beginning to rail against the CBO, mainly because its economic forecasts do not assume that tax cuts will have magical effects on economic growth, as supply-siders have long claimed. Newt Gingrich has even angrily threatened to defund the office. Yet, while Kasich three years ago threatened to shut down the government rather than permit even the slightest deviation from the CBO's word, he, too, is now beginning to disparage the orthodoxy of fiscal prudence.

Naturally, supply-siders who once eyed Kasich warily are now singing his praises. "He is evolving now into more of a tax cutter," says Kudlow, who is also advising Kasich. But Kasich, who has Kudlow's book on prominent display in his office, insists his newfound affection for supply-siders isn't really new at all. As he explained to me, all that talk about balancing the budget was "a good rallying cry." It "reminded us of the larger effort to shrink government." How does he account for the newfound affinity between him and the GOP's voodoo-economics wing? "I'm not evolving," he explains. "They're evolving toward me." Indeed, it is not exactly true that Kasich has abandoned his ideals. He has always believed in cutting the deficit, in cutting taxes, and in looking out for the little guy. The trouble is that these objectives often collide with one another and that some of them have proven more politically feasible--or expedient--than others.

And so, as Kasich embarks upon his presidential candidacy, there is little in his incipient platform to suggest much disagreement with fellow Republicans or, for that matter, with anybody else. His stump speech, which he has already begun to deliver, is a medley of pleasant aphorisms.

Kasich compares his mission as president to that of Theodore Roosevelt--not coincidentally, a Republican icon who appeals to both conservatives and liberals. Just as Roosevelt attacked private monopolies, Kasich says, the next big task is to break up the public monopolies, which he identifies as Social Security, education, welfare, job training, and public housing. It is an agreeable-sounding formulation--instead of abandoning the government's responsibility, Kasich just wants to give the consumer more choices. But none of these programs is a monopoly in anything like the Rooseveltian sense. We already have private pensions, private schools, private charity, employer-sponsored job training, and private housing. (And private housing already accepts vouchers financed by taxpayer dollars, which allow recipients to live in private apartments on the federal dime.) This is a rhetorical conceit, not a plan of action.

And this is the point. The political advantage of attacking government monopolies--rather than attacking government itself--lies in its vagueness. Kasich's audiences can imagine for themselves what he means. A conservative might hear in this the promise of a heroic assault upon the federal leviathan. A moderate might discern nothing more threatening than an aggressive brand of reinventing government. Kasich understands that people will give his words a benign interpretation if they like him. His campaign style might almost be described as neo-Clintonism (which, at least in popular lore, is supposed to be the antithesis of Kasichism).

For example, Kasich praises the government's role in easing the Depression; he hails Medicare and civil rights legislation. But expanded government has become "frustrating," he explained in our interview, and now it is time to "make the government more effective." At one point, he assured me this does not mean rolling back the government, then later asserted his desire to "shrink government." Slightly confused, I asked what he thought the proper size of government ought to be. "That's a trick question," he objected.

Kasich has a second theme, too: Ordinary people must take on the moral responsibilities that we have entrusted to government. "All of us should be leaders," he says. Here he reprises almost precisely a theme articulated at one point or another by Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, and George Bush. Celebrating private generosity, which by definition lies beyond the control of public officials, has become a way to justify a lack of concrete solutions for societal ills. But, for Kasich, this theme is more than A Thousand Points of Light Lite. Talking about the character and values of ordinary people allows Kasich to hint at his own character and values. But die praise is implied, so the humbleness of the man is never in doubt.

Kasich reflects on civic virtue in his forthcoming book, Courage is Contagious. It recounts tales of individual heroism, like Profiles in Courage, only in prose so saccharine that it makes John F. Kennedy's encomia sound positively Menckenesque. ("We can all be heroes if we only have the courage to try," drips a typical sentence.) Also, Kasich extols private citizens instead of public figures. Aside from a series of demonically nettlesome bureaucrats who regularly emerge to burden the protagonists with preposterous regulations, federal officials do not appear in the book.

Except, of course, for a certain Ohio congressman, who finds his way into every story. In fact, the book's first chapter features a detailed account of how Kasich befriended two dying children, and it becomes clear that the hero of this passage is "Kasich himself. "If I think about them hard, I cry at their loss," he writes. "When I see two bright stars twinkling side by side on an impossibly clear night, I see Bobby and Eric."

More typically, though, Kasich enters the story at the end, when he meets the protagonists to bask in their righteousness. The heroes invariably form a personal bond with him. ("I hugged my new friend. 'God bless you,' I told him.") We are meant to think of Kasich that way, too. His faith in the capacity of the American people to solve problems without government is literally an endorsement of each of us individually. It is the same idea employed by Mayor Quimby in "The Simpsons," who won reelection on the slogan, "If you were running for mayor, he'd vote for you." "Look man, I believe in you," Kasich told me, staring meaningfully into my eyes. I'd be more flattered if he knew me.

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