John Kasich rarely gets any credit for the 1990s economic boom. But as chairman of the House Budget Committee after 1995, he played a key role in the budget agreement that erased chronic deficits, replaced them with surpluses, and passed a pro-growth capital gains tax cut on the eve of the dot-com gold rush. Being a presidential country, Bill Clinton’s name is always the one you hear when people look for a politician to praise for this record.
So in a way it will be fitting if a backlash against another Democratic president, Barack Obama, helps elect Kasich governor of Ohio next week. Of course, the credit should not go to Obama alone: Kasich has run an energetic campaign, picking up exactly where he left off after a decade out of politics. Gov. Ted Strickland, the Democratic incumbent, has seen his once-solid job approval rating slide with the economy, all the way down to 39 percent.
In the back-and-forth political climate of the past ten years, few states have been as volatile as Ohio. It swung dramatically to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 after more than a dozen years of Republican rule. Just this month, ABC News predicted November would be a “bloodbath” for Obama’s party in the Buckeye State.
But nothing has been easy about this gubernatorial slugfest in a perennial swing state. Some polls still show the race neck-and-neck; CNN/Time has Strickland clinging to a 1-point lead. A just-released Quinnipiac poll found Kasich leading by 6 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent. The RealClearPolitics polling average has the Republican up by 2.8 percentage points.
When I caught up with Kasich earlier in the campaign, he hadn’t lost any of his 1990s-era enthusiasm. (I was attending college in Kasich’s district at the time, where he memorably told me that Boston, my hometown, was “a kick-ass city.”) “People are looking for leadership and a way out of the mess,” Kasich said. “Ted Strickland is a nice guy. But when you have a crisis, you’re looking for more than somebody to sing ‘Kumbuya’ with you and bring you some donuts.”
Strickland hasn’t exactly made “Kumbuya” his campaign theme song nor has he invited Kasich over for donuts. When Kasich called for replacing the Ohio Department of Development with a private, nonprofit corporation run by a 12-member board appointed by the governor, Strickland ran an ad claiming that the development department would be run by Wall Street CEOs eligible for unlimited compensation. To make this argument, the commercial misleadingly spliced together Kasich’s comments about the proposal out of context — and in some cases, to make him sound like he was saying the opposite of what was said in his full remarks.
Mytheos Holt, a young conservative blogger, called the Strickland campaign on it. But the distortions didn’t stop there. Strickland’s team has also falsely charged that Kasich has earned an “F” from the National Rifle Association, when in fact the Republican gubernatorial nominee has a “B.” Kasich’s “F” was a single-year grade that dates back to his 1994 vote for the crime bill containing the now-defunct assault weapons ban. (Though you know it’s an odd year when the NRA endorses the Democratic candidate for governor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorses the Republican.) When local reporters questioned them about this sleight of hand, the Strickland campaign responded weakly, “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
Indeed. That’s what has gotten Strickland in trouble in the first place: voters fear that another four years of his administration would mean more jobs leaving Ohio, a sluggish business climate, a decaying manufacturing sector, and an unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent. In fairness, many of these things were true under Strickland’s Republican predecessors as well. But Kasich is breaking from the Voinovich-Taft tax timidity with a proposal to scrap the state income tax.
“We can create jobs in Ohio,” Kasich told me. “We can thrive in a high-tech, competitive marketplace. But to do that, you need reform everywhere from the education system to the tax system.” Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), a former Kasich aide and his successor in Congress, is a believer. “John can reach a lot of ordinary working people who tune most Republicans out,” he says. “He gets it. He has a rare combination of a common touch, a really good grasp of policy, and good taste in rock music.”
Democrats have pounded Kasich for working at Lehman Brothers, the investment firm’s whose bankruptcy was an early warning shot in the 2008 financial meltdown. But Kasich’s Lehman work hasn’t affected his standing in the polls as much as his detractors hoped or his admirers feared. He is much better known for his nine terms in the House and his stint as a Fox News commentator.
If Tuesday winds up looking anything like 1994, Ohio may find itself with a governor who is a seasoned veteran of the first Republican Revolution. Those who still remember the country’s last balanced federal budgets may recall that Kasich won a few battles back then.