Don’t look now, but the Republican governor of an electorally important state is making a name for himself with a vocal defense of the poor and the safety net they depend on. The NYT reports on Governor John R. Kasich of Ohio:
“I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”…
Once a leader of the conservative firebrands in Congress under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, Mr. Kasich has surprised and disarmed some former critics on the left with his championing of Ohio’s disadvantaged, which he frames as a matter of Christian compassion.
He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities — balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education — but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.
Kasich’s critics on the left allege that his move toward the center, which includes welcoming the Medicaid expansion, is nothing but a political ploy in anticipation of his upcoming election. Indeed, he seems to be combating the usual GOP austerity track not with new, creative ideas but with old, handpicked blue ideas like raising taxes to pad existing, unreformed programs.
Whether or not it’s the calculating political move his critics allege, Kasich is already seeing his poll numbers rise. That’s no surprise, really. Championing the needs of the poor is a simple message that’s also morally sound and politically advantageous. Yet somehow no Republican leader consistently delivers that message. Dialing back the rhetoric about personal responsibility and how much social welfare programs add to the deficit could help win back the trust of low-income Americans, including immigrants and some minority groups. That should be a priority for the GOP as a whole.
Kasich may not turn out to be the policy maven who points the way forward for his party, but he may be on to the right electoral strategy. The GOP will have a hard time claiming to be the party of opportunity and growth if those most in need of both continue to distrust Republican policies and, worse, intentions.
[Image of Governor Kasich courtesy of Wikimedia]