Republicans Aren't Moderates Just Because They Don't Like Donald Trump

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is reportedly plotting a "moderate" challenge to Trump's presidency. There's only one problem.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) seems to be plotting a potential 2020 challenge to President Donald Trump, with Axios reporting Friday that he could team up with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) to launch a cross-party independent presidential campaign.

Kasich has repeatedly distanced himself from Trump since losing to him in the 2016 GOP primary, and he has floated a potential 2020 challenge to the president in an attempt to appeal to the sort of “Never Trump” Republicans in his mold who have increasingly criticized the president as being not quite one of them ― as former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) did in a Washington Post editorial this week.

Hickenlooper’s presence on the ticket would seem to give the prospective bid moderate credibility. Kasich has in the past supported a pathway to legal status (though not citizenship) for undocumented immigrants, and he notably expanded Medicaid under Obamacare in Ohio. He and Hickenlooper now want to add “job creation” to their bipartisan agenda, according to Axios.

Democrats, however, don’t appear sold: One strategist told Axios that the plan “sounds like a No Labels fantasy, but moderate Dems would hate it.”

They are right to be skeptical. Aside from his apparent friendship with Hickenlooper, there’s little evidence that Kasich is actually “moderate” in any realistic sense of the word. Instead, his governorship of Ohio and his ill-fated 2016 presidential bid make it abundantly clear that Kasich is a standard conservative Republican who looks moderate thanks only to Trump’s unique ability to drastically lower our standards for what qualifies as moderation.

As governor, for instance, Kasich targeted unions and their workers, and he cut voting access in a way that disproportionately affected African Americans. He has repeatedly attempted to defund Planned Parenthood, and he made doing so a national goal during his presidential campaign. Kasich has campaigned for a federal balanced budget amendment, a conservative policy goal that ― while economically unsound and unnecessary ― would force deep cuts to federal poverty and assistance programs and hamstring the government’s ability to combat economic downturns. He favors using block grants for social assistance programs, which would give more control over spending to the states, and supports cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have sounded moderate during the 2016 GOP primary, but his record suggests otherwise.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have sounded moderate during the 2016 GOP primary, but his record suggests otherwise.
Bryan Woolston/Reuters

Kasich said during the campaign that he would seek a one-year moratorium on new federal regulations, and he proposed reductions in the size and scope of federal agencies such as the Transportation and Education departments. Like Trump, he supports expanded defense spending and called for a pause on the acceptance of Syrian refugees.

As Ohio’s governor, Kasich attempted to cut the state’s capital gains tax rate and eliminated its estate tax. He later slashed top income tax rates while raising sales and other more regressive taxes ― an approach that resulted in a tax increase for the bottom 40 percent of Ohio’s taxpayers, according to a think tank in the state.

Kasich, as a candidate, criticized the GOP’s history of “fantasy tax plans.” And yet, he also called for broad tax cuts that would reduce the top marginal rate from 39 percent to 28 percent, would eliminate the estate tax, and slash the capital gains tax rate to 15 percent ― all of which amount to massive tax cuts for the wealthy. He favors lowering tax rates on repatriated foreign profits and cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent.

If all that looks like House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) dream approach to tax and budget policy, it sounds like it too: Kasich, in his campaign platform, refers to the estate tax as the “death tax” and says his cuts are aimed not at the rich but at “job creators.”

A lot of those policies are in line with what Trump has talked about, but Kasich has also tried to distance himself from the president. Like many of his fellow Republicans, Kasich criticized the president for refusing to condemn white supremacists after they rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has also said that “Black Lives Matter, especially now,” acknowledged that some African Americans feel as if “the system is working against them,” and supported some criminal justice reforms. And though Kasich has supported repealing most of Obamacare’s key elements, Kasich opposed Trump and Senate Republicans’ version of a replacement bill.

Kasich also differs from Trump stylistically: He has called the “coarseness” of Trump’s Twitter-based rhetoric on any number of issues “unacceptable” and “unfortunate.”

But opposing white supremacy is not the standard for political centrism. And a preference for moderation in rhetoric does not make a politician moderate.

The latter merely points to the main source of discomfort among Republicans like Danforth with their party’s current standard-bearer. They don’t so much oppose his core policy preferences as they dislike his approach toward achieving them.

Kasich may differ at points with his party and the president. But if he challenges Trump in 2020, it won’t be evidence of a resurgent political center taking on the right as much as a battle between two Republicans who share largely similar views on the broad strokes of GOP orthodoxy. That Kasich doesn’t talk like Trump ― and that he’s preliminarily attached himself to a Democrat to appeal to the sort of No Labels-loving Washington elites who swoon for “moderates” ― shouldn’t obscure that.

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