Is John Kasich Really a Republican Who Liberals Can Love?

He shouldn’t be. He’s basically a staunch conservative who once said something nice about the poor.

John Kasich.
John Kasich talks during a campaign stop on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Gov. John Kasich is billed as the most moderate candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential field. Why?

It doesn’t have much to do with his economic policy proposals, which are a plain-vanilla conservative blend of spending cuts, deregulation, and massive tax cuts predominantly favoring the wealthy. Toss in a dash of supply-side magic powder and you supposedly have a balanced budget, the rousing policy issue that Kasich, who helped balance the budget as a congressman in the ’90s, has pegged as central to his candidacy.

Kasich, as he laid it out in one of his final New Hampshire town halls Monday before his second-place finish, calls for “no more federal regulations outside of health and safety for one year,” and promises to task his vice president with “unraveling the regulatory morass in this country.” He wants to compress the tax code to three brackets with a top marginal rate of 28 percent, down from the current 39.6 percent. He would lower the long-term capital gains rate back to 15 percent, lower the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and eliminate the estate tax. He would cut Social Security. He would freeze nondefense discretionary spending, bump up defense spending (while targeting Pentagon waste), and block-grant federal food stamp and Medicaid programs to the states. All of this, he says in Mitt Romney–esque language, is to inspire the “job creators” to do their thing. Kasich is also strictly pro-life and once tried to crush unions in Ohio, though he did seem to cool down when voters overruled him in a referendum.

So what makes Kasich, once a welfare-cutting chief lieutenant in the Gingrich revolution, a “moderate” this cycle? Eh, a couple of high-profile policy issues. He supports a path for legalization for undocumented immigrants. He also accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion in Ohio with moralistic language that conservatives interpreted as a hostility against them: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter,” he famously said in 2013, “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.”

It should be reiterated that the discretionary spending cuts and block-granting of programs for the poor that he proposes would amount to a disaster for the poor. But hey, one time in 2013 he said we should be nice to the poor, so there you go. Moderate! 

Supporting a path to legalization (not citizenship) and not rushing to blast all poor people into outer space should not be enough to make him liberals’ favorite Republican candidate, though there’s a low bar there. A policy apostasy or two aside, Kasich, also a former Fox News host and Lehman Brothers banker, is a fairly uniform conservative.

What makes him stand out is what makes so many other so-called moderate heretics, such as ex–House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain, stand out in the Republican Party of 2016: He’s a tactical realist who understands the limits of governance—and thus, how to govern.

“You can’t get any really big thing done if you just have one party,” Kasich said while answering a question about his Social Security reform plan on Monday. “We have to have some form of bipartisanship. You’ve got to have some people in the other party say, ‘OK.’ And in the course of it, you’re going to have to talk to them about some of the things they want. You can’t give away the store. There’s a few places [I’ll] have to give. That’s life! I mean, where is it that we don’t give? I don’t know why we think politics is the only place where the answer is no, no, no, no, no.”

You will not find many candidates who will admit this, which is to say “admit” that they would govern in the way the United States government is designed to operate. Kasich doesn’t paint the apocalyptic portrait of American politics or the state of the world that, say, Sen. Ted Cruz or every other candidate does. He’s saying that he knows how to do what needs to be done, but in order to achieve it you’re going to have to cut some deals with Democrats.

It’s this combination of mild demeanor and procedural realpolitik that makes Kasich the nefarious “moderate” who understands what it means to govern and thus is actively despised by the conservative base. Unless the filibuster is torn down completely, any Republican who becomes president will have to operate this way. Kasich is a filthy rotten moderate RINO for admitting it. 

See more of Slate’s GOP primary coverage.