Politics

Kasich Is Back: Same Good Man, Same Bad Idea

A new book. A trip to New Hampshire. What could that mean?

About that balanced-budget amendment ...

Photographer: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images

John Kasich is a lame-duck governor of Ohio, and his Republican Party is the Trumpist antithesis of the inclusive politics he preaches. But he isn't going away.

This week, the unsuccessful presidential primary candidate has a new book coming out that reprises his 2016 campaign themes, "Two Paths: America Divided or United." He'll be on a national-network television interview this weekend, and Monday night will be featured in a CNN town hall in New York. He's taking his show on the road to promote his book, his ideas and himself. One stop will be New Hampshire.

The etiquette of U.S. politics will require him to demur when asked whether he's positioning himself for a challenge to President Donald Trump in 2020. He'll have to say he has given that notion no thought, and that he'll support Trump when he thinks he's right. Translation: He'll run if he sees a realistic route to the White House.

The 64-year-old Kasich presents himself as the grown-up Republican, a constructive conservative who works with Democrats, appeals to minorities and eschews the negativity that dominates his party in Washington.

A tax cutter both as governor and in nine terms in Congress, he made a name for himself as a scourge of what he considered wasteful government spending, even for favored Republican causes like the military. As governor, he championed the expansion of Medicaid to provide health insurance for the poor under Obamacare, and made impressive inroads with minority voters.

His portrayal as a moderate in scores of news articles annoys liberals, who protest that his opposition to abortion, confrontations with unions and small-government conservatism make him just another orthodox Republican.

He also takes frequent shots from movement conservatives for his opposition to mass deportation of illegal immigrants, his acceptance of Supreme Court decisions expanding gay rights, and for insufficient zeal in the fight to repeal Obamacare, among other things. He names Robert Kennedy as one of his teenage heroes and likes to say that when a politician reaches the Pearly Gates, St. Peter isn't going to ask about tax cuts or spending reforms but "what you did for the poor."

For people in the middle, the appeal of Kasich's common-sense conservatism is diminished by his passionate advocacy of a really dumb idea: a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget. He seized on this notion, which would require that federal outlays not exceed revenues except in times of war, in the 1990s. What was a bad idea then is a dangerous one now since 28 states have called for a constitutional convention on this issue, just six short of what's required.

The federal government constantly faces an array of domestic or foreign emergencies or pressing needs requiring fiscal flexibility. If the Kasich amendment had been in effect in 2008, for example, it would have curtailed the ability to combat the economic crisis which, many economists argue, would have led to a global depression.

Today, Trump and congressional Republicans insist that the economy needs individual and corporate tax cuts. Trump and congressional Democrats want a major infrastructure-spending program to modernize a failing U.S. transportation system. It's impossible to do both of those things while balancing the budget. So Kasich should be pressed on his tour to say which of these Republican ambitions he would scrap in the name of a balanced 2018 budget, or whether he would cut funding for Medicare, Alzheimer's research or assistance for rural Americans.

A balanced-budget amendment would encourage even more gimmicks and wildly flawed projections. (Ohio today faces a budget shortfall because the Kasich tax changes didn't produce the revenues forecast.) Conservative icons like the late Judge Robert Bork and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia warned that a balanced-budget amendment would unleash a flurry of legal activity that would turn judges into budget czars.

Kasich was a valuable legislator, the influential chairman of the House Budget Committee, but he misreads how the balanced federal budgets of 1998 through 2001 occurred. They were products of a technology boom, which increased tax revenue, and the end of the Cold War, which made it easier to reduce spending. Tax increases and spending cuts under Presidents George H.W. Bush in 1990 and Bill Clinton in 1993 contributed greatly; Kasich voted against both.

His balanced-budget dogmatism obscures many fine qualities. Unlike most of the other 2016 Republican presidential candidates, he stood up to Trump, refusing to attend the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland last July and writing in John McCain on his November general-election ballot.

He emerged a popular figure with his reputation intact. Contrast that with the experience of governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, whose candidacies made them laughing stocks in their own states.

Kasich has an important contribution to make to the national dialogue, on spending and tax priorities and chronic fiscal concerns. But first he'll have to figure out how to walk back his fixation on changing the Constitution, leaving him room to help shape the disjointed American political dialogue over the next few years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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