Politics & Policy

John Kasich Enters the Twilight Zone

Kasich in the spin room following the debate. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

If there’s a consensus about Wednesday’s GOP debate, it’s that the CNBC moderators had a train wreck. Among the non-conservatives who thought the moderators were horribly biased and inept were HBO’s Bill Maher and Ron Fournier of the National Journal. But Ohio governor John Kasich said afterwards that he was “very appreciative of how they did their job.” Kasich “thought they did a good job” and said that the raucous, interruption-filled debate was “well controlled.”

John Kasich’s perception of the debate reality is worthy of Rod Serling’s old mind-bending TV show.

Every four years, one Republican presidential candidate attempts to first win “the media primary,” primarily by accusing other GOP candidates of “extremism” while at the same time flattering the mainstream media. In 2008, that candidate was John McCain — although his love affair with the media ended as soon as Barack Obama was his opponent. In 2012, it was former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who crashed and burned.

This year, it’s no secret who the media likes. A CNBC profile of Kasich in September wasn’t subtle. Its headline was “Is John Kasich the GOP Media Darling Who Could Finally Win?” CNBC noted that the three candidates — McCain, Huntsman, and Kasich — all had the same consultant for their White House bids. He’s John Weaver, a moderate Republican who has described his party as “a bunch of cranks.” Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin told CBS last month that Kasich is “the media’s favorite candidate, and that is a dirty little secret.” As Kasich proved after the CNBC debate, the admiration is mutual.

RELATED: The Third GOP Presidential Debate: Spin vs. Reality

Like the CNBC moderators, he can drip with contempt for more-conservative candidates for president. He told a rally in Ohio on Tuesday that his rivals were out of the mainstream, variously accusing them of wanting to abolish Medicaid and Medicare, promoting a foolish flat tax, and “leaving millions of people without adequate health insurance.” Kasich concluded by asking: “What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?”

In Ohio, much of it has been in open revolt against Kasich. “John is not a small-government conservative,” J. Kenneth Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state, told the Wall Street Journal this week. “John has made his mark in being able to manage big government more efficiently.”

RELATED: It’s Time to Thin the Republican Herd

Indeed, Kasich embraced that idea in Wednesday’s debate when he claimed that the Medicaid expansion he rammed into law has been good fiscally: “We took [Medicaid] from a 10 percent growth rate to 2.5 percent without taking one person off the rolls or cutting one single benefit.” Budget analysts in Ohio dispute these numbers, but what isn’t in dispute is that one out of four Ohioans is enrolled in Medicaid. Kasich expanded it to cover working-age adults with no kids and no disabilities.

Jonathan Ingram, research director for the Foundation for Government Accountability, describes the Medicaid-expansion policy as “an utter disaster,” telling OhioWatchdog.org:

The expansion has already run $1.5 billion over budget, and more people are enrolled than the state thought would ever sign up. . . . The Department of Medicaid reports that nearly 60 percent of these able-bodied adults aren’t working at all. By unilaterally adding more than 600,000 able-bodied adults to Medicaid under Obamacare, Kasich has made Ohio the most dependent state in the Midwest.

Kasich proudly notes that the federal government is picking up the tab for his Medicaid expansion through next year, but few believe the state isn’t on the hook for future years. In 2013, Bill Batchelder, who was then the speaker of the Ohio House, warned that Medicaid expansion would be a leap into the dark. “This is so screwed up,” he told the Ohio Capital Blog. “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.”

Those reasons prompted Kasich’s GOP legislature to block expansion. But rather than negotiate with them, he engaged in an overreach of executive power worthy of President Obama. The Wall Street Journal described what happened after Kasich vetoed the legislature’s budget:

He then circumvented the Legislature with an unusual step: He brought the issue to the Controlling Board, a little-known panel in charge of routine budget adjustments. The panel voted to authorize spending the federal Medicaid money — after Kasich allies replaced two board members, a move some saw as a ploy to make the panel more favorable to his proposal.

The process left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Just two years before Kasich’s Medicaid expansion, 65 percent of Ohio voters supported a 2011 anti-Obamacare initiative, and at least two-thirds of Republican-primary voters opposed Medicaid expansion.

Kasich has often defended his Medicaid actions in unusual terms. He attacked critics of his moves in 2013 thusly: “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. You better have a good answer.”

RELATED: As His Poll Numbers Slide, Kasich Goes on the Offensive

In reality, giving in to the lure of “free” federal dollars to broaden Medicaid isn’t compassionate. More than 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,” health-care economist John Goodman told me. A 2013 peer-reviewed study out of Oregon found that Medicaid “generated no significant improvement in measured physical health outcomes.” And studies by University of Virginia researchers have shown that surgical patients who are on Medicaid are 13 percent more likely to die than those without insurance of any kind.

#share#Despite all of Kasich’s attempts to stand out from the rest of the Republican field and curry favor with the media, it’s fair to say he has met with limited success. The RealClearPolitics average of all polls finds him in ninth place among GOP candidates, at 2.6 percent nationwide.

Moreover, Kasich has one problem that doesn’t seem amenable to fixing: his personality. Even John McCain, well known for his outbursts, once said of his friend: “He has a hair-trigger temper.” Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard said that if the Ohio governor really wanted to be president, he should stop “acting somewhat like a jerk.” But the learning curve is steep. The National Journal recently followed Kasich to a New Hampshire town-hall meeting and found that voters who showed up there “liked him less after hearing him in person.”

#related#Kasich advisers privately admit his faults but say that even if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination, he is perfectly positioned to be the GOP vice-presidential candidate, given that he comes from the key swing state of Ohio. But a home-state geographic advantage is less relevant in today’s media age than it used to be for a vice-presidential nominee (Paul Ryan in 2012 and John Edwards in 2004 both lost their home states). And balancing that off is Kasich’s infamously prickly personality and penchant for winging it during speeches. In addition, you can bet that the fawning mainstream-media members who now back Kasich would melt away in a general election — just as they did after John McCain finished dispatching his fellow Republicans in the 2008 primaries.

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