Elections

John Kasich’s Long, Strange Trip

Former Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks during the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, August 17, 2020. (2020 Democratic National Convention/Reuters Pool)
How did a man who started out as a somewhat interesting and effective fiscal conservative in Congress become the irrelevant blowhard he is today?

Joe Biden, having already begun to consider the possibility of a presidential victory, has started to imagine what his cabinet might look like. If Politico is to be believed, Biden sees space in it for Republicans of a certain type, including former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, and former Ohio governor John Kasich, the son of a mailman. Both want little to do with the Republican Party so long as Trump is president; neither enjoys many electoral opportunities nowadays.

Kasich, for what it’s worth, has denied interest in a cabinet post, though he did speak on Biden’s behalf at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, so perhaps the story is just idle Beltway chatter. Or perhaps it is merely an attempt by Biden allies to mollify the concerns of swing voters in the crucial states of Arizona and Ohio, and the former vice president has no intention of considering either Flake or Kasich for a cabinet post.

Whatever Kasich’s next step in public life, now is an opportune time to look back on his strange career arc: How did a man who started out as a somewhat interesting and effective fiscal conservative in Congress become the irrelevant blowhard he is today?

After nine terms in the House, Kasich left to launch an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2000. He spent the following decade working at Lehman Brothers and as a Fox News pundit, before being elected Ohio’s governor in 2010. Newly installed in the post, he set about attempting to spearhead reform of public-sector unions’ collective-bargaining process. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker had recently signed a similar measure amid fierce controversy, so Kasich’s instinct made sense on its face. But there was one key difference between Walker’s efforts and what became known as SB5: Kasich, ignoring Republican counsel to the contrary, insisted that public-safety unions not be exempt from his proposed changes. He got his way, but his victory was short-lived: In November 2011, a ballot measure to repeal SB5 won a clear majority of Ohio votes.

Kasich had enjoyed the Republican legislature’s cooperation in passing SB5, despite ignoring its advice on how to go about it. But a few years later, when he wanted to implement the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in Ohio, the legislature dissented. In response, he did an end-run around it, using a seven-member state-government panel called the Controlling Board to enact the expansion. It was a measure of dubious constitutionality, though it was ultimately (if temporarily) upheld by the Ohio supreme court. Throughout the episode, Kasich maintained a misguided sanctimony, insisting that, “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.”

Despite these controversies, Kasich managed to maintain a superficially strong political brand. He balanced Ohio’s budget on the backs of the state’s municipalities, and won reelection in 2014. Then, his White House ambitions cropped up again. On paper, he was a contender: the successful governor of a swing state with ample experience in public service and Midwestern roots. But for whatever reason, he chose John Weaver to mastermind his 2016 campaign. Weaver’s bailiwick has been Republican candidates whose greatest interest seems to be criticizing other Republicans. In 2012, Weaver’s candidate was former Utah governor John Huntsman Jr.; in 2016, it was Kasich. Right at the launch of Kasich’s campaign, he made hay of his reported “refusal to criticize Hillary Clinton” during the Republican primaries, and he stuck to the so-called moderate lane for the rest of the race.

To be sure, the Republican Party is a big tent; there are no rules against moderates winning primaries. But during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was rather conspicuously crowding that tent. There were confusing ideological signals coming from the left at the time; though horrified by Trump, many in the media loved the ratings boost he generated, and liberal partisans hoped he’d win the nomination, thinking him an easy opponent. Yet for all the Republicans Kasich was willing to criticize at the time, he was curiously soft on Trump. And while he avoided direct criticism of Trump in mawkish and grating performances during the primary debates, he stayed in the race to its end despite winning only his home state of Ohio.

Coincidentally, the 2016 Republican National Convention was also in Ohio. Perhaps buoyed by this fact, Kasich persisted despite pleas from Texas senator Ted Cruz, the party’s last best hope of heading off Trump, to drop out and make it a two-man race. He ended up exiting the race only after Cruz lost the Indiana primary and did the same. Back when Cruz still had a chance to win the nomination, Kasich had reportedly told the senator that he would contest the nomination all the way to the convention; instead, he didn’t even attend. He’d effectively played the spoiler candidate, preventing consolidation of the non-Trump vote behind Cruz and going back on his word in the process. When taking stock of his current prominence as a Republican opponent of Trump, one can hardly miss the irony.

Perhaps Kasich’s belated, enthusiastic embrace of the anti-Trump cause since represents an impotent attempt to atone for his role in enabling the president’s rise. Or perhaps, self-righteous and convinced of his own greatness, he’s just once again seeking the most viable opportunity available to him. His political future certainly doesn’t seem all that bright; Ohio cares for him little now, and his overall gubernatorial legacy is dubious. But let’s charitably assume that he is, at this point, sincerely uninterested in joining Joe Biden’s cabinet. Whatever he ends up doing next, his future colleagues should be wary of a man so vain and so willing to transgress the limits of his own authority to get what he wants, so ambitious and so prone to tactical mistakes that he hopes are quickly forgotten as he searches for his next gig.

Then again, maybe there’s a perfect post for him in a Biden administration. Postmaster general ought to be available, and it would be a good fit. After all, he is the son of a mailman.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited since its original publication.

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