The 2016 presidential field started with a pair of former congressional power players, one from each party, with singular lawmaking achievements on their record.
Jim Webb, who engineered a big GI Bill of Rights expansion as a Virginia senator almost a decade ago, has now slipped off to Democratic oblivion. It’s not clear how much longer John Kasich, the Republican with an even bigger legislative accomplishment under his belt, will survive in a contest where standing out as the outsider has become the most rewarding approach. Kasich has the deepest governance résumé in the GOP field. His five years as governor of a fiscally solid Ohio were preceded by almost two decades in Congress, where he was a main architect of the only plan that’s balanced the federal books since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
But the budget isn’t among the nation’s big worries this year, and his version of compassionate conservatism is pretty far out of fashion with the party base, leaving Kasich mired in fifth place in New Hampshire polling two months before the Feb. 9 primary — where he’s essentially staked his candidacy.
The next nationally televised GOP debate, in Las Vegas on Dec. 15, is perhaps Kasich’s last best chance to create momentum ahead of the traditional Christmastime lull in the campaign. At a minimum, he’ll be trying to erase the public’s memory of him from the last debate, a month ago, where his combative tone and interruptions of other candidates drew highly unfavorable reviews.
That performance drew frustrated sighs from Kasich’s remaining friends at the Capitol, and plenty of eye-rolling from the longer roster of lawmakers who remember less fondly his sometimes confounding and over-the-top congressional persona. (There are just 60 Republicans on the Hill who served with Kasich, who departed in 2000 after nine terms; but his only congressional endorsements are from five who’ve arrived since he left, four of whom are from Ohio.)
To those allies and antagonists alike, the 63-year-old Kasich they see on the campaign trail is pretty similar to the young man in a big hurry who became the first GOP chairman ever of the Budget Committee in 1995 and got his historic budget-balancing plan adopted two years later: a brash whirlwind of restless energy who’s often able to offset his perceived cockiness with doses of Christian humility, working-class populism and pop-cultural endearments.
(He was a big fan of Pearl Jam when in Congress, but during a town hall meeting with two-dozen supporters recorded by SiriusXM radio near Capitol Hill last week, he promised to reunite members of Pink Floyd to play at his inauguration.)
When he makes it into the presidential campaign coverage these days, it’s often because he’s the GOP candidate with one of the most pungent putdowns of front-runner Donald Trump. “This is just more of the outrageous divisiveness that characterizes his every breath and another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States,” was his tweet after Trump proposed barring Muslims from entering the country.
What has received less attention is the work that made him one of the most influential people at the Capitol after his party’s takeover of Congress two decades ago. Kasich was given considerable bipartisan credit for the 1997 budget-balancing agreement between Hill Republicans and the Clinton administration that reduced taxes, curtailed health care entitlements and refashioned domestic spending.
None of the four incumbent Republican senators now seeking the presidency can claim credit for a legislative achievement approaching that in either difficulty in execution or effectiveness in result.
Kasich was turned down by his fellow Republicans when he pushed hard the next year to cut taxes and spending even deeper than the deal he’d cut, although he did secure the other big victory of his congressional career — an end to production of the B-2 bomber, then the most expensive weapons system on record, achieved in partnership with dovish liberal Democrats.
But revenues pouring into the Treasury from a booming economy helped his fiscal plan work much quicker than anticipated, yielding a four-year run of surpluses that stopped when the first big tax cut won by President George W. Bush in 2001 was followed by a recession and surge in military spending after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We hadn't done it since man walked on the moon and we haven't done it since I left,” is the way Kasich’s stump speech sums up that time of fiscal balance on Capitol Hill.
His first run for president, premised on those budgetary achievements, lasted only a few months in 1999. And, with the deficit now at 2.8 percent the size of the national economy, the smallest share of the gross domestic product in seven years, the budget now ranks far down the roster of issues voters consider most important in deciding their presidential vote.
The national electorate is much more interested in economic growth and job creation, and on that score Kasich’s boasts about Ohio’s turnaround in this decade are more likely to resonate.
For now, however, his focus has been on appealing to the moderate Republicans and independents who can vote in the New Hampshire primary — knowing that if he does not finish in the top tier in that contest his candidacy won’t be sustainable. To that end he’s expressed support for gay marriage, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, more government investment in renewable energy to slow global warming and changes to a justice system that now has too many African-Americans “feeling it not only doesn’t work for them, but works against them.”
In his 15 years since leaving Congress, he said during his D.C town hall last week, he’s developed “an increasing heart for those who struggle.”
That’s rhetoric as different from today’s GOP tone as Kasich is from the generation of Republican lawmakers who have succeeded him in the Capitol spotlight.