Kasich pitches from the heart to woo NH voters
By NBP Staff | January 29, 2016, 6:11 EDT
This article is part of a series of profiles of the 2016 presidential candidates that will appear on the NewBostonPost in the months leading up to the nominating conventions.
One thing people who’ve been around John Kasich will volunteer: He’s got heart; he genuinely cares about people.
Janet Risner, whose husband, Harry, has known the Ohio governor and Republican presidential contender since they were both kids in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, says Kasich was always looking for ways to help out. She described him as “very, very passionate” about his beliefs and “very, very determined” in pursuit of his goals.
After spending many weeks in close quarters on the campaign trail with the governor, a low-level worker said he’s been impressed by the way the former congressman and investment banker treats everyday people, those who can’t necessarily do him favors or harm. In his close-up view of the candidate off-stage, behind the scenes, there’s a lot to like.
“A lot of heart,” said the worker, who didn’t give his name but has spent many days trekking all over the Granite State with the Ohio governor. He said the reputedly volatile politician shows genuine compassion toward others and reflects the qualities he hopes to see in a candidate when it comes time to cast his vote in November, especially when compared with so many of the others currently battling each other in the field.
Kasich prefers the high road to mudslinging. Asked at a candidate forum Saturday to respond to former reality television star Donald Trump’s bizarre assertion that U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) wasn’t a Vietnam War hero, Kasich demurred:
“You can’t be serious, asking me that question,” he said at the Nashua, New Hampshire, event, and directed the rest of his response to honoring those in the military and serving veterans.
While Trump has steadily dominated in likely voter surveys, Kasich’s ranking has risen and fallen and risen again, putting him in a statistical tie for second in New Hampshire with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, according to a Suffolk University poll released Thursday. Kasich has focused most of his time and money on the Granite State, while other candidates have divided their time between New Hampshire and Iowa.
On the campaign trail, Kasich paints himself as a doer, someone less concerned with partisan victories than in getting things done. And he stays positive about how government can accomplish things despite the rancor and divisiveness frequently on display in Washington. He often cites, by way of example, the compromise Republican President Ronald Reagan reached over Social Security with Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives during most of Reagan’s eight years as president.
“They did it together and there was no demagoguery,” he pointed out later Saturday at a town hall-style meeting in Milford, New Hampshire, where Janet and Harry Risner watched from the front row.
After the meeting in Milford, Risner said since he was a youngster, Kasich, now 63, could be relied on to do everything in his power to accomplish what he had said he would do. “He is persistent.”
At previous gatherings with voters in New London and Portsmouth, Kasich told similar stories about how he worked with recalcitrant Ohio lawmakers to get things done. He often points out his work in Congress with Democrats to balance the federal budget in the 1990s as an example of his ability to achieve seemingly impossible political ends.
Kasich’s first drive to balance the federal budget provides an example. It failed – by just a few votes – in 1993, when Democrats ruled the House. Kasich credited then-Rep. Tim Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, with providing pivotal support. Penny joined the governor at his Milford campaign stop on Saturday.
To get the failed deal to advance as far as it did, Penny told the crowd of about 200, “everybody had to give a little.” The plan called for nearly $100 billion in spending cuts, or almost $164 billion in today’s dollars. The two former congressmen, who are almost the same age, have remained friends ever since, Penny said, noting that the Kasich family named their dog after him.
The governor, he added, “wants to get into my rock ‘n roll band.”
“I tell him you’re not ready yet,” Penny said, adding: “He can’t hold a tune.” But should Kasich win the White House, Penny said, “he’s in!” Kasich’s musical favorites include U2, Neil Young, Radiohead and the Foo Fighters, according to the VoteSmart.org website.
Taking a more serious tone, Penny said Kasich is a political leader who tells things as he sees them and who delivers on his promises.
“You can trust him,” Penny said. “He is a genuine human being.”
Other veteran politicians concur.
“The thing that I like about John is, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t pull any punches,” Leon Panetta, a consummate Washington insider who has known Kasich for decades and once battled with him as then-President Bill Clinton’s budget chief, said in a National Journal article published early last year. “You really have a sense that you’re dealing with somebody who’s really telling you how he feels about an issue and where the possibilities are for trying to find some consensus.”
Should he become president, Kasich is fond of saying, he knows how to get members of Congress to do what’s right for the nation, not just themselves or their party. Kasich says he’ll do it by convincing representatives and senators that “the reason they made that trek to Washington is not to engage in warfare but to engage in solutions.”
Balancing budgets, controlling spending, preventing Social Security from going bankrupt are all elusive goals in the nation’s capital, where Kasich served for 18 years as an Ohio congressman. He left in 2001, after launching a short-lived presidential bid in 1999. Kasich’s candidacy today provides evidence of his determination, and of his conviction that the nation’s major problems can be solved.
“This is all doable,” Kasich will tell anyone who’ll listen.
His local appearances have included a big, digital display showing the national debt ticking up, currently standing at about $58,000 for every American, children included. He proudly notes his effort to stop that clock, and getting it rolling in reverse, in 1997 as the House Budget Committee chairman, working with a beleaguered President Clinton, a Democrat.
“My plans are not based on getting elected,” Kasich said in Milford. “They’re based on governing.”
Kasich says his work in the House proves he knows how to work with Democrats to get things done. He cites efforts he led with Clinton in the late 1990s to produce four balanced budgets, starting in 1997. And Kasich doesn’t let anyone forget the contentious partisan circumstances of that achievement. The Republicans in the House under Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia firebrand, were on their way to impeaching Clinton in December 1998, barely three years after a partisan budget battle that shut down the government in November 1995.
To the former Budget chairman, “getting to yes” with Clinton and Congress in 1997 resulted from what he has come to see as a God-given gift.
“My skills come from the Lord,” Kasich said in Nashua. “Maybe he gave me one skill that was unique: the ability to get people to do what they know they should do but oftentimes don’t want to do.”
Kasich often points to his religious beliefs to explain his actions in government. Raised a Catholic, he drifted away from the church, as many young people did growing up in the wild 1960s. But when a drunk driver killed his parents in 1987, he turned to his faith and hasn’t left it since, people who know him say.
In 2013, when the self-described tea-partier sought to extend Medicaid under Obamacare, igniting a storm of criticism from the right, the Ohio governor urged opponents in the state Legislature to consider the plight of the poor who lack adequate health care. And he underlined his rationale with a reference to the Bible’s book of Matthew.
“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,” Kasich told reporters in 2013. He has referred to his desire to help the less fortunate with his power in government as “the force that’s driving me.”
Should he win the Republican nomination and go on to capture the White House, Kasich is sure to confront many in Congress unwilling to do those things that he believes are right to do.
In fiscal terms, Kasich said, that would mean requiring a vote of Congress on any federal spending of more than $100 million. He would also roll back income tax rates to 28 percent for top earners, from 39.6 percent; cut the capital gains tax rate to 15 percent from 20 percent, and lower the top corporate tax rate to 25 percent rate from 35 percent. On top of that he would reduce payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security.
“Republicans could learn a lot of lessons from John Kasich about the importance of helping the needy,” Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s first press secretary, told the National Journal in March 2015. “He exudes it. Emotes it. You feel it. For a party that’s struggling to connect to people who are low-income or poor, John knows how to connect because it is genuine and heartfelt.”
On reflecting about his work as governor, Kasich delights in pointing out how he turned a multi-billion-dollar deficit into a $2 billion surplus in just five years, and restored job growth in a state many had long consigned to the rust belt. But even then, he has recognized the limits to the benefits such success brings.
“When you have economic growth, there are still people living in the shadows, whether it’s the mentally ill, the drug addicted or the working poor,” he told a meeting of supporters in Boston in November. “We have to make sure that everybody in the country, especially our members of the minority community, have a sense that they can rise.”
Kasich’s fiscal plans, he has assured listeners in New Hampshire, “gets you to a balanced budget.”
“We’re still working on a lot of parts of it,” he added, telling the audience in Milford that it can be done. “We know how to do it.”
“The answers are simple, you know that – they’re not complicated,” he told those assembled in a VFW hall in the central New Hampshire town.
“You want to fix Social Security, it just means that high-income seniors are going to get less and that the people who are really dependent on it are going to get what they expect,” Kasich said, without defining what he means by “high income.”
“You know what gets in the way?” Kasich said. “Ego, personal politics and forgetting that you are there to serve America.”
Kasich’s rambling style sometimes takes him off on tangents, such as a discussion of the problems he faced on becoming the youngest state Senator in Ohio history at 26, only to join a chamber dominated by Democrats.
“I beat the president of the Senate’s best friend,” he told his audience in New London in December. Of course, he reminisced, that meant he would make little headway as a lawmaker.
“The Senate president wouldn’t even recognize me,” Kasich said. Bills he tried to introduce were either ignored or sent to the House of Representatives, and when these measures returned to the Senate they entered the chamber under someone else’s name, Kasich said. “That’s how they punished me.”
“The only thing I think I got through under my name at that point was a bill that an elementary school wanted, to name this turtle the state reptile,” Kasich recalled, to a burst of laughter. Later, he said, “people were making fun of me.”
The Buckeye State does have a state reptile, but it’s the black racer snake, chosen in 1995.
It was a lesson in humility the budding politician took to heart. When dealing with opponents, “you show them respect,” he said, even when you’re beating them at every turn.
Some on the political right view Kasich as too moderate on issues like education – he led Ohio to adopt the Common Core educational standards model – and health care. But he refutes those critics with his call to bundle up federal funding for state programs in four general areas, transportation, job training, education and health care, and sending the funds to state leaders to use as they see fit. The federal one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, he says, echoing a criticism many other governors have made.
Kasich is known for making blunt remarks, sometimes even rude comments which get him in trouble. At one point he had to publicly apologize to a police officer who stopped him for driving too close to an emergency vehicle. Kasich later called the cop an “idiot” on television.
The candidate has attributed his brusque, straight from the shoulder style to his upbringing, where he was taught to say what he thought, unfiltered. Congressional leaders noticed his sometimes unrefined style.
“John has always been outside the country-club, board-of-directors, CEO part of the Republican Party,” Gingrich told the National Journal. “He’s closer to the caddy than to the guy who pays the country-club fees.”
But it may also be his impatience – many who’ve met him remark on his nervous energy, his desire to see things change yesterday – that leads some to see him as pushy. Kasich’s willingness to follow his own path has annoyed some in the GOP, who see him as something of a wild card. But that doesn’t seem to faze him.
“All my lifetime I’ve really been fighting the establishment, getting people upset because I want change,” Kasich said at the Nashua forum.
During his time in Congress, Kasich scored relatively well among conservative interest groups such as the National Rifle Association and the National Taxpayer’s Union, but not always in topmost tier. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime mark of 88 percent.
On the issues, his record shows him strongly opposed to unrestricted abortion rights and same-sex marriage, while he favors school vouchers, gun rights, free trade and never legalizing marijuana, according to a Ballotpedia.org analysis.
Kasich majored in political science at Ohio State University in Columbus, and showed a knack for achieving the seemingly impossible early on. As an 18-year-old freshman, he used a contact with the school’s top leaders to win a 20-minute private meeting in the White House with then President Richard Nixon.
He began working in political jobs right out of school. In 1976, that led him to Ronald Reagan’s failed presidential campaign.
While he is a professional politician, he spent a decade working in investment banking at Lehman Brothers Holdings and other companies between leaving Congress in January 2001 and entering the Ohio governor’s office in 2011. He also found time to write three New York Times bestsellers and spent several years as a Fox News talk-show host and contributor.
Despite his past work on Wall Street and in television, he shows disdain for powerbrokers in finance and the media while on the campaign trail.
“I’m fighting for regular folks, because I figure the people on top can take care of themselves,” he said in Nashua. Among past presidents who he views as great leaders are Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, a Democrat.
But he won’t let that taint him on the right. Kasich has proclaimed to conservative critics that he was part of the tea party movement before there was a tea party.
“John’s heart is in the right place,” Panetta told the National Journal. “He wants to do the right thing for people.”
Other candidate profiles: