If Kasich Is Accepted As a 'Reasonable' Candidate, Why Aren't Warren or Sanders?

by Neil H. Buchanan

To be clear, John Kasich would be a better president than Donald Trump.  But so would my dog Maynard, who died in 2007.  Being a preferable alternative to the most dishonest, corrupt, bigoted president ever cannot be the standard for judging possible presidential contenders, yet many self-styled centrists (or at least non-extremists) in the pundit class continue to treat Ohio's soon-to-be-former governor as some kind of truth-telling paragon of seriousness.

This is nonsense on stilts, and The Washington Post's editorial page -- which, like the editors of The New York Times, seems to think that Kasich deserves to be treated as a serious thinker -- allowed Kasich to inadvertently prove his unseriousness in an op-ed this morning.

There is not much to say about the op-ed itself, although I will dutifully force myself to address it in a few moments.  More importantly, however, it is useful to think about how the Kasich myth has played out among the keepers of the conventional wisdom.  Now that Paul Ryan has so completely ceded his own unearned spot as the Serious-and-Reasonable Conservative, John Kasich seems to be the guy that the opinion makers want to elevate.  Will they never learn?

More to the point, I continue to be amazed that the people who seriously argue that Democrats must not "mess things up" by nominating someone who is perceived to be Too Extreme -- usually referring to "that Socialist" Bernie Sanders, but also including Elizabeth Warren and some others -- are perfectly happy to say that even liberals should be willing to settle for someone like Kasich, because he is supposedly reasonable and non-extreme.  This is ideology masquerading as realism.

For those who have forgotten his origin story, John Kasich was one of the chief lieutenants during Newt Gingrich's takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1990's.  As I recounted in a column early last year (responding to a Kasich op-ed that had recently appeared in The Times), Kasich enthusiastically voted to impeach Bill Clinton, and he was generally a right-wing hack who was easily exposed as intellectually dishonest.

After leaving Congress and somehow becoming Ohio's governor, Kasich apparently decided to try to maintain a sideline hobby as a crusading deficit hawk, and he ended up trying to be a salesman for a balanced-budget amendment.  Not only is such an amendment a terrible idea on the merits (for reasons too far afield to discuss here), but Kasich actually wanted to call a constitutional convention to enact it -- an idea so insane that no less a conservative icon than Antonin Scalia mocked it.

Meanwhile, as I explained in a column during the 2016 primaries, Kasich's "moderation burlesque" has been both dishonest and extreme when addressing, as one prominent example, abortion rights (as a matter both of rhetoric and -- most importantly -- action as the governor of a major state).  This was similar to my description, in another 2016 column, of the process through which Marco Rubio tried to transmogrify himself from a Tea Party extremist into an oh-so-reasonable moderate (who just happens to have extreme views on everything, when push comes to shove), Kasich ran for president that year as a likable truth-teller.

The problem is that Kasich has always been an irascible hothead, and he does not tell the truth.  But because he made the unexpected decision to accept federal Medicaid money for his state, and especially because he is savvy enough to know how to market that decision as proof of his compassion and bipartisanship, Kasich has been over-praised by the D.C. insiders.

What does his op-ed in today's Post add to the story?  Nothing, and that ought to be the story.  Kasich is now back in the business of deficit hawkery, and he is even more vacuous than he used to be.  He starts with a straw man argument, asserting that "deficits do matter."  Ooh, what courage to say such a thing!  Of course deficits matter, somehow.  The problem is that Kasich has no idea how they matter, and he assumes that they are all bad, all the time.  (Again, a full discussion of the effects of deficits is not appropriate here.)

Kasich's vapidity is most clearly visible in his insistence on framing his argument around the level of gross federal debt -- which, predictably, he describes as "a $21 trillion debt hanging over our children’s and grandchildren’s heads."  That is the wrong measure of the debt, and even the right measure of debt is not what actually matters.  Still, Kasich complains that, in the recent midterms, "[e]very other issue, ridiculous or sublime, got a full airing, but the 21 trillion-pound gorilla sitting there in plain sight was ignored by both parties and the media as well."

Yet the closest Kasich comes to explaining why the debt matters is to repeat an argument known as Crowding Out, which simply says that the money that governments borrow to finance their deficits could instead be used by businesses to finance their activities.  This is sometimes true and sometimes false, but Kasich takes it as gospel, then adding an odd claim: "The bottom-line result is less growth and innovation — and pressure to take on even more debt."  He makes no effort to explain what that "pressure" is, nor does he make an argument based in reality about the huge problem that he thinks this causes.  It is just a casual one-off assertion designed to get pundits like The Times's Frank Bruni or The Post's Robert Samuelson to say, "Boy, that John Kasich just gets it."

If Kasich were merely making a tired crowding-out argument, that would make him little more than a copycat.  Every conservative who wants to sound serious about deficits can mouth the idea that "money has to come from somewhere, and there are no free lunches" -- conveniently ignoring, among other things, the myriad ways in which governments can invest money to increase growth and innovation.

What makes Kasich worse than a garden-variety purveyor of the conventional wisdom, however, is that he makes his pitch in the form of pure right-wing ideology.  Although he complains that Trump and many Republicans -- see, he's willing to criticize his own people! -- "support record spending and deficit-driven borrowing that have left us with an unprecedented burden of national debt," the key there is that he is making this all about spending, not tax cuts for the rich.

Even when he mentions (as part of a list of reasons for increasing debt) some unspecified "unpaid-for tax cuts" in the post-2000 era, Kasich never mentions the extra two trillion dollars or so in debt that the most recent Republican tax cuts will create -- tax cuts that have, completely predictably, failed to produce the business investment that was supposed to increase long-term growth (and, in a resuscitation of the Laffer Curve, pay for themselves).

And even that brief mention of tax cuts is immediately followed by Kasich decrying "a continuing failure to address entitlement reform."  Yes, Mr. Moderate Bipartisanship is simply shilling for Mitch McConnell's efforts to keep deficit hysteria in play as a way to attack Democrats and contain Big Government.  McConnell, indeed, has said that he will only agree to cut Social Security and Medicare if he can get Democrats to give him political cover.

Again, however, this is nothing new for Kasich, and he makes his priorities clear when he ends the piece by saying that "[d]eficits matter because they’re a symptom of runaway government spending that weakens investment by businesses and individuals to enhance growth and productivity."  Per Kasich, it is runaway government spending, not serial tax cuts by Republicans, that caused this supposed problem.  In making that easily disproved claim, he is no different from anyone in the Trump camp or any of the most conservative Republicans.

I am happy to emphasize here that (as I have been arguing for literally decades) there certainly are bad ways to run deficits.  It should not be surprising that Republicans have figured out yet again that they can run deficits in the worst way possible yet still get away with claiming to care about future generations.  No matter how much Kasich talks about his supposed successes as governor -- because governors of both parties always take credit for fiscal "discipline" that was required by law -- Kasich is simply repackaging far-right ideology in his gruff-but-amiable new persona.

All of which brings us back to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  Earlier this year, I wrote: "It Is Not Only Liberals Who Must Compromise to Stop Trump."  My point was that liberals have spent decades being lectured about the importance of not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.  "Bush/McCain/Romney is bad, so don't hold out for some unachievable ideal."  Yet in that framework, we learn again and again that people like Kasich are reasonable moderates, while Sanders and Warren are wild-eyed extremists who might even be worse than Trump.

The fact remains that nothing currently on offer from any viable candidate who can be called liberal or progressive is even a little bit extreme.  Any particular pundit might reasonably disagree about the ideal form of the health care system or the proper level of the minimum wage, but the Democratic left is offering policy proposals that are popular and backed up by facts and logic.  Kasich is offering sanctimonious cant.

Would I vote for Kasich over Trump?  Of course.  Would the Kasich cheerleaders vote for Sanders over Trump?  Maybe, but there is plenty of reason to believe that many would not.  And if they would not, what does that tell us about their supposed fear of Trump's lawlessness?