This article is taken from the November 1994 issue of The American Spectator.
On Sunday evening, August 20, as the House of Representatives was about to pass its final version of the crime bill, Rep. John Kasich of Ohio was in a state of high excitement—perhaps comparable to the time three years earlier when he let his animal spirits get the best of him and climbed onstage at a Grateful Dead concert at Washington’s RFK stadium. As ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, he had been assigned by minority leader Newt Gingrich to represent the party in round- the-clock negotiations with Democratic leaders and the White House. As he took the House floor, Kasich was ecstatic that he had wrung out so many concessions.
Many of his GOP colleagues did not share Kasich’s joy. Most felt the crime bill was still a sham, another case, as Republican strategist William Kristol has put it, of “some Hill Republicans working overtime to pull President Clinton’s chestnuts out of the fire.” Rep. Chris Cox, the former Reagan staffer who represents California’s conservative Orange County, isn’t a member of the John Kasich Fan Club. On that Sunday night, he took a seat in the House directly in front of the speaking stand, positioned perfectly to glare at Kasich when he spoke and, perhaps, to intimidate him.
It didn’t work. Kasich pleaded for Republicans to pass the bill and, as his allotted time was running out, delivered a peroration that has already caused him no shortage of grief: “What we are viewing is a tough negotiating process that is the future in this House. This is the way we will govern this House, and govern this country, by making tough, tough decisions and coming toward the middle to serve our country.”
Within twenty-four hours, Kasich was saying he had misspoken, that he had been rattled by the presiding officer behind him pounding the gavel to signify that his time had elapsed. “This has nothing to do with health care,” Kasich assured me, seeking to allay fears that he would lead the GOP “toward the middle” on that issue as well. Two weeks later, he was saying that he should not have spoken at all.
The damage had been done, howev. The family of the late Rep. John Ashbrook signed a letter urging that Kasich (“a true Judas”) not be permitted to attend the annual dinner honoring the conservative Ohioan who challenged Richard Nixon in 1972. At a stormy session of conservative activists, New Right trend-setter Paul Weyrich angrily urged that Kasich be ousted from his Budget Committee leadership, and replaced by Chris Cox. But Kasich had just received the 1994 “Sound Dollar Award” of the Free Congress Foundation—whose president is Paul Weyrich. Kasich was “to be commended for efforts aimed at restoring fiscal responsibility to our nation,” Weyrich had said in announcing the award.
Kasich’s conservative credentials are indeed impressive. He has a lifetime 100 percent Christian Coalition rating, and was given the 1993 “Spirit of Enterprise Award” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a perfect voting record. His latest ratings show 92 percent conservative (American Conservative Union) and 0 percent liberal (Americans for Democratic Action).
He has been in the vanguard of down-sizing bloated government, having sought to eliminate the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Commerce, and to privatize air traffic controllers. His budget-cutting efforts have been both micro (trying to kill a $500,000 grant to restore bandleader Lawrence Welk’s North Dakota home) and macro (attempting, in collaboration with Democratic Rep. Tim Penny, to cut spending by $90 billion). Last year, at age 40, after only a dozen years in Congress, he earned his Budget Committee leadership post after a vigorous campaign contending—with no little justification—that he would be more conservative and aggressive than 60-year-old Rep. Alex McMillan, the North Carolina congressman who was in line for the post by virtue of seniority.
So, what happened to Kasich on the crime bill? Was this but a momentary aberration? Or did it connote a basic transformation?
Neither, really. Rather, Kasich’s performance mirrors the state of congressional Republicans generally. The trouble with John Kasich is the trouble with the Grand Old Party. It sheds some light on the Republican failure to capitalize fully on populist currents that it could ride to a dominant political position.
Neither Kasich’s determination to shrink the government nor his mastery over budgetary matters can be challenged. But on matters of pressing concern to the GOP rank and file, Kasich is given to the softness that has long characterized the party’s congressional wing.
As the newly anointed Republican spokesman on budgetary affairs, Kasich last year personified his party’s failure to confront President’s Clinton’s plan to redistribute income through the tax system. “I would have no objection to a tax on rich people,” Kasich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May 1993, “but I want to make [spending] cuts for the first couple of years.… I don’t have any hang-up about saying, you know, you put some surtax or surcharge on people who make a lot of money.”
Kasich later conceded to me that his position was in error, but this year he again stumbled over tax “fairness.” Trying to draft a deficit-shrinking budget with the lowest bottom line, Kasich put on his green eyeshade and came out with a $100-per-child tax credit. The pro-family lobby, headed by Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council, complained that so trifling a proposal was not worth fighting for. When Kasich then agreed to raise the credit to $500, two senior Republicans on the budget committee—Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Olympia Snowe of Maine—protested bitterly, saying it would not be “fair” if the tax credit extended to children of the rich. Kasich responded by putting a $40,000 cap on who could take the credit. When pro-family activists protested, Kasich raised the cap to $200,000—limiting its reach, but retaining the “fairness doctrine” nonetheless.
It’s not only on taxes that Kasich deviates from populist Republicanism. He opposes congressional term limits (which makes him distinctive among House Republicans only because his opposition is overt rather than covert). One of the few votes that hurt his ACU rating was his support of National Endowment for the Arts funding. He split from the Republican majority in backing the ban on assault weapons in the crime bill. “I thought this was a reasonable measure, to say we’re not going to make any AK-47s,” he told me. It’s no secret that Kasich had planned to vote for the unamended crime bill, warts and all, had it not been kept off the floor by a procedural vote, in which Kasich joined. He doesn’t share the conservative disdain for the bill, echoing the Democratic view that the uproar was stirred up by the NRA.
It isn’t that Kasich is an apostate. Rather, it’s that—like most members of Congress—he’s a professional politician first. He’s known no other life since graduating from Ohio State University in Columbus as an out-of-state resident (growing up in a Democratic family in a blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood). After a stint as a state legislative staffer, he was elected to the Ohio senate at age 26. After one term, he ran for Congress in 1982, defeating a short-lived Democratic incumbent in a normally Republican seat from the Columbus area.
Kasich bridles at the notion that he is an inside-the-Beltway careerist, insisting that—in contrast to many House members—his real home is back in his district. He flies to Columbus at every opportunity to see both constituents and his girlfriend (he is unmarried). He has pioneered a movement for absentee electronic voting in the House to permit members to spend more time in their districts, and talks about—someday in the not-too-distant future—getting out of public life.
But there is no question that Kasich cherishes his Washington position. Variously described as an Eagle Scout or the “fifth Beatle,” the youthful politician is hard to dislike. He has won high praise from the capital’s establishment—particularly for his work ethic—that would be unthinkable for such bogeymen as Jesse Helms, Robert Dornan, or even Newt Gingrich. His diligence in proposing alternative budgets has been commended editorially by the New York Times and the Washington Post. He has received the stamp of approval from that powerful liberal arbiter of value in the capital, Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt. A poll of 6,000 “movers and shakers” rated him the “best” Republican congressman. The 1994 edition of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics calls Kasich “a genuine leader of his party.” About the only criticism he’s received in the mainstream press came in 1991, after his comic effort to join the Grateful Dead.
All the praise suggests where the boundaries of respectable Washington conduct lie. Efforts to cut the budget by 1 percent or eliminate the ICC may be viewed as misguided but safely within the realm of civil political debate. Not so opposition to gun control or NEA funding, or support for term limits and radical tax cuts. Kasich’s deviations from the conservative agenda are those that keep him in the good graces of the Washington establishment. But they also ignore the role that the term limits movement, the NRA, and (considering his position on the NEA) the Christian Coalition have played in winning special House elections this year and must continue to play if Republicans are to make significant gains in November.
“If somebody wants to accuse me of not being an ideologue, I suppose that’s correct,” a peeved Kasich told me after he came under fire for his role in passing the crime bill. The professional politician in him abhors the ideologue and venerates the negotiator. While building his impressive conservative voting record, Kasich has also built bridges to Democrats. Six years before the Penny-Kasich bill, Kasich entered into a partnership with left-wing California Democrat Rep. Ron Dellums to de-fund the B-2 “Stealth” bomber.
With some pride, Kasich hosted a dinner at his home last year with Hillary Rodham Clinton, in which the first lady (whom he now addresses as “Hillary”) discussed health care with him and other Republican House members. Therein lies the danger of elevating the art of the deal over adherence to principle.
Kasich has been well behind the curve on health care. In May, over drinks in Columbus, he told me that the GOP could not afford to be responsible for the death of health care reform and that a compromise must be pursued. A month later, shocked by the determination of House Democratic leaders to pass a health bill with Democratic votes only, Kasich was not so sure. On September 12, he signed a letter to House colleagues titled: “Now Is Not the Time for Health Care Reform!”
It was Kasich’s budgetary expertise and ability to deal with Democrats that led Newt Gingrich to assign him to negotiate on behalf of thirty moderate Republicans who insisted on passing a crime bill. Yet there appears to have been a significant gap between what Gingrich and his protégé were seeking. Gingrich wanted Republican demands to be so harsh that they would be rejected; Kasich wanted—and got—agreement. Gingrich voted against the final bill; Kasich voted for it. Otherwise, he said, “I would have no credibility.”
A week after his floor speech on the crime bill, Kasich told me he did not intend to point his party toward the middle: “I was rushed, and what I meant to say was how people who agree have to work together.” A week later, his confession of error was broader: “I made a mistake in speaking on the floor. I wish I had never spoken.” But on the merits, Kasich dismissed as “ridiculous” William Kristol’s arguments that the bill runs counter to Republican principles by federalizing the crime problem.
Kasich firmly believes that “I can actually pass a conservative agenda through the House next year.” But if he gets insufficient support from his colleagues, he told me, he will reconsider his opposition to term limits. In fact, John Kasich, in his twelfth year in Congress at age 42, is a walking argument for term limits himself. Diligent, personable, and effective, he has come to view himself as mastering the intricacies of government “most people don’t understand.” That’s where he went wrong the evening of August 20.
(Robert D. Novak, who died in 2009, was a nationally syndicated columnist, television commentator, and editor of the Evans & Novak Political Report.)