A gentleman’s agreement between politicians and the press seems to hold that under no circumstances should voters be told to calm down. Which is not to say that there isn’t some variety in exactly how candidates tell voters that the world is on fire.
Marco Rubio wants you to appreciate that President Obama knows exactly what he’s doing and that any damage that Mr. Obama has inflected on America has, in fact, been by design. Mr. Trump doesn’t miss a chance to tell his supporters that the government is run by idiots. On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders assessment of the country is that nothing short of political revolution will save us.
Every two years, politicians make a beeline for the microphones and declare – with a straight face and little sense of irony – the same exact thing: that this election is the most important of our lives. The scripts are well-worn: if you’ve won the last election, you want to argue that voters have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure important gains; if you’ve lost the last election, then you want to argue that this is the last chance to put America back on the right track before the damage becomes too great. Either way, the theme is the same: the other party’s candidate is dangerous and voters can’t afford to sit this one out.
Each party peddles fear – fear of the other party, fear of outsiders, fear of foreign competition, fear of political correctness. Fear. Fear. Fear.
This week in New Hampshire, a cocktail of fear mongering and fantasy peddling propelled Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to victories. But New Hampshire also struck a counter-note: John Kasich won a strong second place in the Republican primary.
The Republican governor of Ohio and a previous member of the House of Representatives, Governor Kasich is no squishy moderate. He has pursued aggressive anti-abortion measures in his home state, supports capital punishment (which is increasingly unpopular), and favors a Balanced Budget Amendment (which would almost certainly lead to a drastic cut in the federal budget). Kasich was elected governor in 2010. The next year he signed into a law a controversial bill stripping public sector unions of many of their collective bargaining rights. Activists and voters in Ohio sprung into action, got a measure on the ballot, and voted down the law in less than a year.
But even with that inauspicious start, Kasich has gone on to claim the mantle of reasonable centrist. How?
The first thing that’s worth mentioning is that Kasich benefits from weak competition: the GOP field is filled with conspiracy-peddling “wacko birds”. When your party’s leading candidate is Donald Trump, it’s not difficult to be moderate by comparison.
But that analysis sells Kasich short. Kasich comes across as reasonable because, despite having strong conservative beliefs, he isn’t a man blinded by them. Take, for example, his reaction to Ohio repudiating his labor law. Another politician might have doubled down or maneuvered to enact the same policy through subterfuge. Kasich, instead, took his lumps, declared that the state was clearly not buying what he was selling, and moved on.
In a similar vein, Kasich was one of only a handful of Republican governors to accept federal funding for the Medicaid expansion through Obamacare; he also fought for it over the objections of his Republican legislature. His comments on the episode were even more telling:
I had a conversation with one of the members of the legislature the other day. I said, I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do, too. I also know that you’re a person of faith.
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.
At a time when it has become de rigueur for Republicans to argue that nothing that government does to lend aid to the poor can be good, Mr. Kasich’s comments represent an important dissent. Small government might be a valid policy goal, but if the country has any hope of reaching consensus on critical issues, then it is necessary that legislation not be hampered by a radical flank that views opposition to government action, in and of itself, as a moral imperative.
A similar thing can be said for Mr. Kasich encouraging voters not to despair about the future. Listening to White House hopefuls, you might be forgiven for surmising that America is beset on all sides by calamity: Mexico is sending over rapists, China is taking our jobs, ISIS is threatening Duluth, and everything is being run by the Illuminati (or Wall Street). Kasich’s take?
We’re fine… We have our problems and our challenges but these things can all be fixed.
On Tuesday, that positive message was enough to propel Mr. Kasich to second place and provide his long shot campaign with a bit more oxygen.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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