One Cheer for John Kasich

One Cheer for John Kasich

If Kasich can pull potential Republican defectors to Biden, why not ask for his help?


Some Democrats and progressives, including Nation columnist Elie Mystal, are upset that former representative and Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, will be speaking at the Democratic convention in August. For most of his political career, Kasich was anathema to Democrats and liberals. It isn’t clear if he’ll officially endorse Joe Biden, but his presence at the convention is a very public repudiation of Trump.

Democrats should embrace Kasich’s support for Biden, in whatever form it takes. Despite polls showing Biden widening his lead against Trump in most swing states, his victory is hardly assured, especially with Trump and the GOP doubling down on voter suppression. If Kasich can help persuade some Republicans in swing states, including Ohio, to vote for Biden, that could help defeat Trump.

In the short term, Democrats should welcome the support of Kasich and other anti-Trump Republicans as part of a united front against fascism—a one-time tactical alliance to rid America of a white supremacist and authoritarian president.

Mystal worries that Kasich’s presence on Team Biden shows that Democrats are more concerned about attracting white voters than energizing voters of color. “One white guy in Cincinnati is worth more to some Democrats than 100 Black guys in Cleveland,” he wrote. Anyway, he claims, “Joe Biden is not going to win white men in Ohio in 2020.” Increasing turnout by Black and brown voters in swing states is indeed critical for a Biden victory. But the two strategies aren’t mutually exclusive.

Mystal claims that Kasich isn’t the guy to help Biden win Ohio. Instead, Mystal says, Biden should rely on Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who won reelection in 2018 in part by garnering wide margins among Black and female voters. Of course, Brown is already beating the hustings for Biden, but why wouldn’t it help to add Kasich to the mix? In June 2018, near the end of his second term as governor, he was more popular among Ohio Democrats (56 percent approval) than among Republicans (46 percent), according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

Politics is about persuasion—persuading your party’s base to vote and persuading swing voters to vote for your candidate.

According to Mystal, there aren’t enough swing voters in Ohio and other battleground states to worry about. He’s wrong. Even a small erosion of Trump’s supporters can thwart his reelection bid. In 2016, Trump won 68 percent of Ohio’s white men and 56 percent of white women. Kasich can help move some of those white voters into the Biden column. Meanwhile, Sherrod Brown, Barack and Michelle Obama, unions, and grassroots community groups—and perhaps LeBron James—can help increase turnout among black voters. That combination could secure Ohio for Biden.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio in 2016 by a 52-44 percent margin. But now Ohio—with its 18 electoral votes—is a battleground state. Recent polls show that Biden and Trump are now neck and neck. Other states once considered solidly red—including Texas and Georgia—could also be up for grabs.

To tip battleground states that Trump won by a small margin, Biden needs less than 5 or 10 percent of Trump voters to switch. According to a recent New York Times/Sienna College poll, 14 percent of voters in six battleground states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina) who supported Trump in 2016 say they won’t likely support him again this year. If Kasich can pull those potential defectors to Biden, why not ask for his help?

Because, Mystal argues, Kasich and other anti-Trump Republicans are like a virus that will infect the body politic. Democrats, he believes, should practice social distancing from Republicans who, in different ways, laid the foundation for Trump’s ascent, even if they oppose him now.

Kasich is one of a growing wave of anti-Trump Republican operatives, pundits, and former officeholders—including Steve Schmidt, Charles Sykes, Rick Wilson, David Frum, George Will, Bill Kristol, Mona Charen, Jeff Flake, Jennifer Rubin, and George Conway (Kellyanne’s spouse). They dislike Trump for different reasons—his incompetence, racism, nativism, bromances with dictators, pathological lies, indecency, lack of compassion, and disloyalty to the Constitution. They believe Trump and his Fox News and alt-right allies have undermined true conservatism and want to restore the GOP’s core principles. Some of them recently formed the Lincoln Project, which has sponsored devastating anti-Trump ads designed to appeal to independent voters and wavering Republicans.

Most of them will vote for Biden. But fortunately, after Biden wins, they’ll have no influence within the Democratic Party and its steady leftward thrust. Many will oppose Biden’s initiatives on health care, climate change, the minimum wage, unions, infrastructure, abortion, Supreme Court picks, and other issues, but might urge congressional Republicans to compromise rather than stonewall.

Mystal’s dislike of Kasich is understandable. He’s “pro-life” and anti-union. In Congress, he proposed huge cuts in social spending, including reducing Medicare payments for seniors. He was a foreign policy hawk who embraced the Iraq War and other misadventures. After serving in Congress from 1983 to 2001, he hosted his own show on Fox News, served on several corporate boards, and worked as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers. As Ohio governor (2011–19), he privatized prisons, boosted charter schools and school vouchers for private schools, made it easier to buy and carry guns, and restricted collective bargaining rights of public employees. He’s been on both sides of the climate denial debate, immigrant rights, and voting rights.

The Tea Party endorsed him during his 2010 campaign for governor, but he lost much of their support the next year when he embraced Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid in order to cover about 275,000 low-income Ohioans. As Trump sought to dismantle Obamacare, Kasich defended the program, recounting stories of Ohioans who benefited from the state’s expanded coverage.

Although he claimed that the additional $13 billion in federal Medicaid funds would help Ohio’s economy, he also argued that expanding coverage was the ethical thing to do. He told Republicans who controlled the Ohio legislature:

“Put yourself in the shoes of a mother and a father of an adult child that is struggling…. 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.’”

For many voters, health care is the issue, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of a system that ties coverage to jobs. If, in his convention address, and perhaps on the stump and in ads, Kasich attacks Trump’s efforts to dismantle federal health care and Medicaid, he could persuade swing voters to support Biden.

After he lost the GOP nomination in 2016, Kasich refused to endorse Trump. He didn’t even attend the GOP convention, in his own state. He announced he would write in Senator John McCain’s name for president. He called Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border “just crazy,” opposed Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim countries, and, after the killing spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, called for limits on the sale of AR-15 style rifles.

By embracing Biden, Kasich has effectively ruled out winning the GOP nomination for president in 2024. Most liberals and progressives obviously do not want Biden to appoint Kasich to a cabinet position or to head a federal agency. But he could be helpful as Biden’s “special adviser” with the narrow goal of persuading Republican governors to expand Medicaid. If he can pull that off, he’d be improving the lives of many low-income Americans.

Or, if the trade-off for helping Biden defeat Trump is an appointment as US ambassador to some country where he can’t do much harm, Democrats should be OK with that.

Perhaps all Kasich wants is a ticket to heaven when he dies. He knows that his track record so far won’t get him past the pearly gates. St. Peter will look at Kasich and say, “Normally, you’d go to hell, but I’ll make an exception because of that Medicaid thing and your support for Biden. Plus, you were a good dad.”

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