Most political observers in Ohio believe Governor John Kasich wants to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. If that’s true, he’s approaching it in an odd way, alienating much of his conservative base by making controversial tax proposals and proposing to expand Medicaid — although he now appears to have given up on the latter.
In his 30-year-long political career, John Kasich has prided himself on being a conservative. In his successful 2010 race for governor he boasted he was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. For years before that he hosted a show on Fox News that showcased small-government conservatism.
But this year, Kasich has taken a strange turn. He embraced extending Medicaid coverage to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, a move that was anathema to opponents of Obamacare. He declared himself in favor of civil unions for gays, and then had his spokesman withdraw the statement. He proposed a “frack tax” on oil and gas production and an extension of the sales tax to many services in order to pay for a 20 percent cut in the state’s income tax. While he sold his tax-reform package as pro-growth, many GOP state legislators disagree.
This week, the GOP-controlled state house stripped Kasich’s Medicaid expansion out of the budget, rewrote his school-funding formula, canceled all of his tax increases, and reduced his income-tax cut to 7 percent for all taxpayers. “It’s a dramatic reversal for a Republican governor’s priorities to be treated that way by his own party,” says Chris Littleton, head of the conservative activist group Ohio Rising.
Kasich insists he remains a conservative but admitted last week to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that “trying to stick me in the [ideological] box, I don’t think has ever worked very well.”
In truth, John Kasich is often more of a populist than a conservative. He grew up in blue-collar McKees Rocks, Pa., and he says he grew up wanting to help people. “It’s a sin to not help somebody who needs help,” he said, and he clearly believed his Medicaid expansion would do just that.
But in reality, giving in to the lure of “free” federal dollars to broaden Medicaid isn’t compassionate. Over half of physicians no longer accept Medicaid patients because it is a failed program with bargain-basement reimbursement payments and bureaucratic regulations that lower the quality of overall care. “Medicaid patients often give up trying to find a doctor and wind up in hospital emergency rooms, where they wait three to six hours for non-urgent care,” John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis told me. Representative Chris Collins, the chairman of the House’s Small Business subcommittee on health, told me, “The false promise of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion is that it will trap millions of Americans in a program that needs urgent reform first.” Recent studies by the University of Virginia have shown that surgical patients on Medicaid are 13 percent more likely to die than those without insurance of any kind.
But hospitals — among the biggest employers in Ohio — lust after the $13 billion in federal Medicaid dollars that would flow to Ohio over the next seven years. Hospitals helped bring 2,500 liberal protesters to the state capital of Columbus yesterday to argue for Medicaid expansion. With Kasich insisting he “profoundly disagrees” with the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid, he may well ratchet up pressure on the legislature.
That’s what worries many Republicans. “We are dividing ourselves on a core issue,” says Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party leader, who is running against the governor’s choice for Republican-party state chairman later this month. He notes that 65 percent of Ohio voters supported an anti-Obamacare initiative in 2011 and at least two-thirds of Republican primary voters oppose Medicaid expansion. “Political analysts like Charlie Cook say Obamacare’s failures could be the big issue in the 2014 midterm election, and we are just fracturing our coalition here,” he told me.
On policy grounds, GOP house speaker Bill Batchelder says that Medicaid expansion would be a leap into the dark. “This is so screwed up,” he told the OhioCapitalBlog. “We have all these regulations that have to come out. . . . We also have to know what it means if they don’t have the money in Washington. Those are pretty big challenges.”
Kasich’s staff insists he is pursuing a conservative agenda that includes a reduction of more than 4,000 state employees in the last two years, an expansion of school-choice programs and efforts to improve the state’s business climate, albeit often with targeted subsidies many conservatives disapprove of.
Overall, Kasich’s record is clearly conservative in some areas. But should he run for president, his shifts to the left will likely leave true conservatives going with other candidates. The space for a pragmatist in the 2016 GOP primaries is limited, and much of it is already taken up by New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
But Christie has a ready-made excuse for many of his deviations from conservative orthodoxy: He must deal with a Democratic legislature, and he has often moved it to the right. John Kasich is in the position of having a solidly Republican legislature that he sometimes is trying to move to the left. That contrast could force him into a lot of awkward explanations on the 2016 campaign trail.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.