The Case for Kasich

The establishment leaders of both major political parties are being unseated, or at least knocked down several pegs, by anger and frustration with Washington business as usual. Voters are sick and tired of a massive and seemingly insurmountable gridlock that has raised questions as to whether Capitol Hill and the White House can ever again work together, creatively, constructively and graciously.

Yet one individual with establishment experience and credentials adheres to principle, speaks straight talk and does not mince words or make idle promises, and still has a track record of working well with others on both sides of the aisle and in his home state. I refer to two-term Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who has been at the moral center of the Republican debates -- whether the audiences have appreciated it or not.

Kasich cannot but catch the attention of every voter who is looking for a straight shooter. The biggest proof of his integrity and courage is that he has received some of the biggest boos as well as many major cheers. In the November debate, Kasich, who as Ohio congressman for 18 years played the “chief architect” role (the Associated Press phrase) on the House Budget Committee in the iconic 1990s balanced budget, received loud boos when he said that had he been president in 2008, he would have bailed out certain banks because he would not have let hard working people lose their life-savings, though he might have considered limiting to some extent what the very wealthy could have reclaimed. His overall goal, in any case, would have been to protect all depositors to every possible extent. That sounded reasonable to me, as did his ensuing statement of principle and achievement -- namely, that when it comes to such economic crisis, the best strategy is to focus on preparedness, as did Kasich himself in Ohio by not intervening between a financially hemorrhaging aluminum plant and its utility company.

Kasich has also been booed for observing that it is cruel and impractical to ship out the eleven million illegal immigrants in America, but far more workable to put the law-abiding among them on the path to legalization. He has made no secret of his refusal to summarily and cruelly end Obamacare, especially if this means destroying Medicaid options for the poor, though he is determined to revamp Obamacare with reforms rather than tweaks.

As at the first January debate, Kasich always speaks sensibly about the healing effects on the economy that common sense regulation, certain tax cuts, open trade that is fair to American workers, and fiscal discipline can have. He has always been a respected advocate of Pentagon reform -- namely, seeing that taxpayers get their money’s worth on items purchased by the military. He has been consistent in his stance that government subsidies should not be necessary for marketable, world-improving ideas.

 Such timely and practical truth telling illustrates the dependability of Kasich’s promise, “I actually want to be president, and I want to actually fix the country.”

On foreign policy, as well, Kasich, who contributed to the House Armed Services Committee, has a lot to say that is worth hearing and can win willing ears on both sides of the aisle. In the debates he has observed that in the battle against ISIS, America must find a way to build a coalition with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds alike, and that breaking Iraq into three states may be a strategy to achieve this, and demands that Saudi Arabia step up with integrity in the Middle East.  Kasich is also the only candidate in memory to have spoken about a 21st century version of Radio Free Europe, the broadcast (now, webcast) of American values once aimed at Communist lands, to counter the internet strides made by ISIS and other vile terrorist recruiters.

Kasich has learned a lot of things from being an observant governor and congressman, and has done thoughtful and good things because of that experience. In the debates, his illustrations of concerns and policies are valuable and on point. On the topic of immigration, for example, he has pointed out that some of the newcomers who were minors were targeted from the start by sex traffickers. He therefore signed into law a bill increasing penalties for human trafficking and allowing victims to sue those who coerced and forced them through drugs, threats and guile. Kasich has a long and impressive history of legislating against any abuses he has found.    

Of all the candidates in all the debates of both parties, Kasich has been the most highly rated by the various fact-checker services, which allow him to claim credit for major roles in balancing the national budget as a congressman and for bringing a surplus to Ohio’s treasury -- that same Ohio, by the way, which is key to winning any national election. A September editorial in the Chicago Tribune aptly and foresightedly described Kasich as a “grown-up who has spent decades proving how capable he is at working the levers of government to deliver solutions.”

Among Republican Party members, there are, of course and understandably, those who demand as their presidential candidate an orthodox conservative -- what they call a “principled” conservative -- who will toe a certain line and who will refuse to compromise, even if this means government shutdowns. But the Republican Party must recognize, for the sake of its principles, that current American demographics and attitudes are such that any candidate in any party must appeal to individuals who do not share his or her principles. A Republican in the White House is no longer assured, let alone an ideologue of the right or the left. The only prayer of the nation opening up to the possibility of a staunch conservative as chief executive is for the Republican Party to establish a track record of cooperation and accomplishment.

Kasich most embodies such a path of cooperation, and can give the most effective and sincere -- and tested -- voice to it. When late night talk show host Stephen Colbert asked Kasich what values he is bringing to the Republican message that others may not be providing, he responded, without missing a beat: “Just because someone thinks differently than you, doesn’t mean you demonize them…. I have been involved in welfare reform, in balancing the budget, in improving Ohio, and I do it because I want to work with other people. And what I try to tell my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, [is] ‘You’re here for a short period of time, make a difference, serve the country, use your talents, give people a chance to be hopeful again, and to believe that America’s best days are ahead.’”       

Within the Republican Party and before the nation as a whole, John Kasich has demonstrated a rare courage of conviction that encompasses an even more rare courage of cooperation. I write these words from Illinois, where the deadlock between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature has been toxic. Yet even in this seemingly hopeless situation, one Democratic state representative has shown a Kasich-like courage, which is the only way to a workable and working government. Ken Dunkin decided that compromise and restoring child-care and eldercare and disability subsidies immediately were more important than “teaching the governor a lesson.”

 Voters across the nation need to be very careful that they do not enable an Illinois scenario to go federal. America’s executive leadership must inspire elected officials with Dunkin’s kind of courage.

Visiting The View, a daytime talk show known to be inhospitable to those who depart from certain leftist platitudes, Kasich bravely observed that if Planned Parenthood is indeed guilty of imposing abortions and selling fetus parts, Federal support should go to more worthy women’s health and early childhood venues. He also managed to get in enough words edgewise to declare: “I balanced the budget. I turned Ohio around.” In the November debate he put it even more pithily: “I’ve done it twice, I’ll do it thrice.” The more I hear Kasich, the more I think he would live up to a campaign motto I would propose: “Can Do. Has done. Will do.” Kasich will find a way to do what works, and in that way to advocate best for his conservative principles.

Kasich is best equipped in temperament (even in occasional testiness), ability and experience to fulfill Benjamin Franklin’s maxim: “Well done is better than well said.” Kasich also happens to speak well and to have a lot of valuable insights and strategies to share.

As a 62-year-old independent voter who has, after careful deliberation, chosen Republican candidates for president, governor, congressman and senator in most (but not all) elections since I started voting, I believe that I have earned the right to a couple of observations on how the current debates reflect on the Republican Party.

First, it is a shame that Kasich always has to toot his own horn (and yes, that he has to come across as boastful while doing so), but someone has to declare his -- and the other candidates’ -- impressive credentials. It just so happens, in my opinion, that Kasich’s credentials are by far the most impressive.

Secondly, Republican audiences at these debates need to realize that they are under as much scrutiny as the candidates, that their conduct and reactions can determine the choices of independents.

Kasich has steadfastly refused to play the fear and Democrat-bashing cards, urging both parties to “put America first.” He has refused to guide his campaign with the presumption that Americans will choose defiance over experience in a future president. As he told Neil Cavuto in an after-debate interview on January 14: “If you go into a town hall and you want to get people down, you can do it. But…I want people to get up, and so I don’t see the anger. I say…we have problems and they can be fixed.”

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired rabbi living in Chicago.

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