He Doth Protest Too Much: John Kasich and the GOP

Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich gestures during a town hall meeting at the University of Richmond in
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich gestures during a town hall meeting at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

After the most recent GOP Presidential whatever-you-want-to-call-it, some of you looking desperately for a Republican who seems, well, not kooky may have cast your gaze toward Ohio Governor John Kasich. He's low-key, he's intelligent, his eyes don't rotate in different directions when he campaigns, and hey! he's from Ohio, home of presidents, even if you can't quite remember which. How kooky could he be?!

Further, before the candidates lined up at the CNBC gab-fest Kasich let loose with something resembling the truth about the current state of the GOP: "Do you know how crazy this election is?" he charged. "Let me tell you something. I've about had it with these people. Let me tell you why. We got one candidate that says we ought to abolish Medicaid and Medicare. You ever heard anything so crazy as that, telling our people in this country who are seniors or about to be seniors that we're going to abolish Medicaid and Medicare."

He wasn't done. "We got people proposing healthcare reform that is going to leave, I believe, millions of people without adequate health insurance," Kasich went on and then lamented, "What has happened to our party? What has happened to the conservative movement?" A lot of people outside the GOP have been asking those very questions too.

Well. . .if you're one of those intrigued by John Kasich I'm here to burst your balloon. Kasich ought to know the answer to the question "what has happened to our party?" because the party has landed exactly where he - and many others - directed it more than 20 years ago.

John Kasich was elected to Congress in 1982 and made a solid reputation for himself as a fiscal conservative. When Republicans took over the House in 1994 Kasich become chairman of the House Budget Committee and was an integral part of the Gingrich Gang. He was never as confrontational or abrasive as Gingrich (or Bob Barr or Tom DeLay) but the agenda was the same. He voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998.

After deciding not to run again in 2000 Kasich cashed out. He did some time on Fox News, guest-hosted "The O'Reilly Factor," and turned up a lot on "Hannity and Colmes." He may not have been particularly noisy himself, but he was certainly part of the right-wing noise machine that has shaped the discourse of GOP politics.

Then he cashed out further, taking a job at Lehman Brothers. Yes, that Lehman Brothers. And yes, Kasich was there when it went bankrupt in 2008. Unemployed now, he took his Lehman Brothers money, returned to Ohio and ran for governor in 2010. He won, just barely, in a textbook example of what happens to Democratic candidates if they don't turn out the vote.

With a majority in both chambers of the state legislature, virtually the first thing Kasich did in office was to sign a punishing bill to bash public-sector unions. Just like the one that made Scott Walker famous in Wisconsin, only slightly worse. Kasich's own father was a member of a public union (he was a postman), so there may have been some unfinished Oedipal business here, but the law was so outrageous that Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to repeal it. (For those keeping score: Ohioans 1; Wisconsinites 0).

Chastened, perhaps, Kasich has retreated to more comfortable GOP turf: humiliating pregnant women. No state has been more aggressive prosecuting the Republican War on Women in the last 5 years than Ohio. Women seeking abortions are now forced to have an ultrasound and to listen to the fetal heartbeat, among other harassments. That's if they can find a clinic to do the procedure at all. Thanks to the Kasich-led assault on pregnant women, half of the abortion providers in the state have closed since 2011.

Currently the Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would outlaw abortions if women discover their fetus has Downs Syndrome. Short of having a Republican in every exam room monitoring doctor-patient interactions, it isn't clear how such a law could be enforced, but Kasich has indicated that he would sign it nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Ohio has become a Wild West for charter schools. Charter schools have sprung up across the state faster than women's health clinics have closed. But they operate without much oversight and this past summer the director of charter schools admitted that he'd been lying about test scores in order to hide the dismal performance of many of them. When Democrats on the State Board of Education called for an independent investigation of this and other charter school shenanigans, they were told to buzz off.

In fairness, Governor Kasich did expand Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. In a reality-based world this decision would have been regarded as a no-brainer, but in the current political environment Kasich has been praised for his "courage."

Still, if Kasich truly is as exasperated with his party as he suggested the other day, then he is simply reaping what he helped sow. He may be anodyne, dull, a Midwestern Anglican, but he is very much a creature of the New New Right. Beware the Boring Buckeye.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.