There is a segment of the Republican base that thinks just about the worst thing a candidate can be is a career politician. This sentiment goes a long way toward explaining the brief success Herman Cain experienced in 2012, the relatively strong poll numbers Dr. Benjamin Carson is enjoying early in this presidential cycle, and the stunning senatorial victory of David Perdue last year.
If, instead, you have been in elected office for most of your adult life, one way to make that fact more palatable to those folks is to associate yourself with the biggest names and successes of those years. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, currently testing the waters for a presidential bid, did a credible job of doing just that during a lunchtime speech to the Fulton County GOP on Tuesday.
His first congressional race, in 1982, featured one such name: "I believed in Reagan and his philosophy, so I ran on the Reagan platform," Kasich recounted Tuesday. "No one in Ohio in 1982 wanted to appear with Reagan ... that meant I got to spend time with him." Kasich wound up being the only Republican challenger to unseat a Democratic incumbent in the U.S. House that year.
Kasich served on the Armed Services Committee for 18 years, part of the reason he told reporters afterward that, within the potential 2016 field, he was "maybe the only one with national-security experience and executive experience." He was also chairman of the Budget Committee when the federal government last ran a surplus, working closely with -- cue another big name, especially in Georgia -- Newt Gingrich. He added a charming story about how, as a freshman at Ohio State University, he wound up spending 20 minutes in the Oval Office one-on-one with President Nixon (a tale more notable for his assertiveness and persistence than for any specifics about the later-disgraced Nixon).
He made a point Tuesday of mentioning his leaving Congress, and politics, in 2001: "The economy was screaming along. ... We had a $5 trillion projected surplus. Republicans ran the White House, the House and the Senate. And I'm thinking, well, this $5 trillion is safe. I remember people saying, you know, it's going to be gone. And I said, you've got to wake up every day (trying) to blow $5 trillion. Well, they've done it. We did it. Republicans did it." (Earlier, discussing how his first proposed budget compared with that of then-President George H.W. Bush, he said, "The Bushes like to spend money." Afterward, he denied that was a slap at potential opponent Jeb Bush.)
Of his return to politics, to run for governor of Ohio in 2010, he explained: "I think the Lord's created us for certain things, and I think we've got to respond to Him." As governor, he has turned an $8 billion shortfall into a $2 billion surplus, while cutting taxes along the way.
That's not all he's done, and some of the rest is what gives Republican voters pause. Notably, he expanded Medicaid in Ohio, reasoning, "It's all our money ... so I'm bringing back as much as I can bring back" from Washington. The "our money" part is a bit hard to justify we are still borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars per year to finance the federal government. Kasich may be on firmer ground with his contention that spending Medicaid money to treat the mentally ill and drug-addicted is more cost-effective than paying for them to be in prison, though we have yet to hit the budget year when the federal government is no longer paying the full cost of the expansion.
"Our party needs more compassion. We need more empathy," Kasich told the audience. "Every once in a while, we've got to get people out of a ditch, so they can live their God-given potential and they change the world." When asked afterward whether this was "compassionate conservatism" (he said it wasn't) and whether he could square that with his criticism of the Bushes' spending that went along with that, he said: "It's not the same thing. You don't have to throw money at everything in order to help people. But sometimes money's important, and it needs to be prioritized. That's what we're doing in Ohio."
What GOP voters will make of the line Kasich walks remains to be seen. If any of the laggards in opinion polls can make up ground against the upper tier, you'd think it would be a two-term governor of a key swing state who talked his way into a meeting with Nixon, campaigned alongside Reagan and balanced the budget with Gingrich. But it is a tall hill to climb.