Maybe The GOP Establishment Should Have Embraced John Kasich Sooner

Once again, the party's obsession with Obamacare comes back to haunt it.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s big win in his home state keeps him in the Republican race -- and puts him in position to contend seriously in states like neighboring Pennsylvania, where he’s headed next and where he would appear to be well-positioned to challenge both real estate mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

But Kasich has no chance of getting a majority of pledged delegates from the caucuses and primaries, which means his only hope is a contested convention. And it will be difficult for Kasich to walk away from Cleveland with the nomination if, as seems likely, he enters the convention with fewer pledged delegates than either of his rivals. Such is the reality when you don’t win your first contest until the primary campaign is two months old -- and more than half of the delegates have been awarded.

On Tuesday night there were probably some Republican establishment figures -- desperate to stop Trump, highly unenthusiastic about Cruz -- wondering why they didn’t get behind Kasich some time ago. If so, they have only themselves to blame.

Kasich would appear to be a formidable candidate in the general election. He’s highly popular in his home state of Ohio, which happens to be a key swing state. He’s also got an easy, natural way with working-class voters -- and manages to espouse strongly conservative views in a folksy, unpolished way that connotes authenticity and disarms critics.

But except for some former colleagues in the House of Representatives, where Kasich served before becoming Ohio’s governor, even moderates within the GOP establishment were slow to rally behind Kasich -- even after it became apparent that neither former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a prayer of getting the nomination for themselves.

So what gives?

One possible reason is that Kasich, for all of his conservative positions on issues like abortion and taxes, committed the ultimate act of Republican heresy: He had his state participate in the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid.

Of course, Kasich wasn’t the only Republican to do so -- Arizona’s Jan Brewer and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, among others, did the same thing. But when Republicans in the Ohio legislature and conservatives across the country tried to stop Kasich, Kasich fought back -- making not just the obvious pragmatic argument (that Ohio was better off taking the federal money that went with the expansion) but also a moral argument (that letting poor people suffer and even die from lack of insurance was wrong).

Speaking to reporters in 2013, Kasich said, "Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, 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. "

Making matters even worse, Kasich invoked similar logic when he refused to endorse mass deportations. This may have been the only position more toxic in Republican politics than challenging party orthodoxy on Obamacare -- and, once again, Kasich defended it on moral grounds.

"I couldn't even imagine how we would even begin to think about taking a mom or a dad out of a house when they have not committed a crime since they've been here, leaving their children in the house," he said at one Republican debate. "That is not, in my opinion, the kind of values that we believe in."

Kasich's refusal to endorse mass deportations should not have been a profile in courage, and the same goes for his decision to embrace the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. There’s actually a long history of Republicans working with Washington to implement safety net programs, even when they don’t like the design of those programs. But that was before the party lurched right on immigration and health care, and the party establishment went along.

Today, with Bush and Rubio out of the race, and Trump threatening outright to claim the nomination, more Republican leaders might be willing to overlook Kasich’s heresies -- a few weeks too late to do any good.

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