What do presidential candidates like above almost anything else? A polarized Washington. They can run against it, promising to change the culture of the capital. Barack Obama did. So did George W. Bush. And there was John Kaisch on Meet the Press last weekend, lamenting the bitter divide, suggesting that he would operate differently.
The governor isn’t running for president yet, in a formal way. He must win re-election next year. Still, by Tuesday, his national profile had edged higher, a front page headline in the New York Times declaring: “Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net.”
The chorus at MSNBC soon began to sing his praises. Come Friday, Paul Krugman opened his Times column with kind words about the governor.
What did Kasich do or say to spark this liberal applause? Well, he expanded Medicaid, and good thing that he did, bringing health coverage to 275,000 poor and vulnerable Ohioans, maneuvering around a resistant Republican legislature to do so.
Then, the governor framed his decision with a twist, taking aim at fellow Republicans in Washington. He told the Times: “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy. You know what? The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the WPA?”
Holy FDR and LBJ! Here was a Republican governor not just cudgeling the gridlock but actually signaling that the federal government can play a positive role in our lives.
Not everyone was pleased. A Wall Street Journal editorial poked the “Apostle Kasich” for letting his Christian charity lead him into an abuse of his executive power.
The editorial was right on one count: The governor has acted “like he’s guided by the Holy Spirit,” invoking St. Peter, citing a moral obligation to help those in need. The Medicaid expansion isn’t the only episode in which he has backed his words with deeds. For instance, he has stepped up to add resources for those with severe mental illnesses.
Yet, with the governor, it often gets complicated, more so than he likes to concede. Let’s be straight: The Medicaid expansion would not be part of the Kasich agenda if the federal government wasn’t covering 100 percent of the tab for three years, and eventually 90 percent going forward. Recall that the governor initially fretted about the state expense in covering those who have been eligible for Medicaid but have not enrolled, now likely to enter the program because of the individual mandate.
There was little talk then about “our responsibility — those who are blessed — to try to help those people who live in the shadows,” those words coming in August during an appearance on Fox News.
On Friday, a temporary expansion of the federal food stamp program expired, about 1.8 million Ohioans seeing their benefits decrease. That includes 792,000 children.
As it is, the Medicaid expansion will free $400 million in state money that lawmakers had routed to the program. Might the governor call for using part of that sum to cover the $192 million in lost food assistance?
Actually, Kasich and allies appear eager to deliver another round of tax cuts, taking to 35 percent the overall reduction in income tax rates since 2005, those at the highest income rungs benefiting the most.
On another front, the governor has moved to limit the availability of food stamps. The state has qualified for a federal waiver exempting recipients from the work requirements, reflecting the harsh recession and the weak job market. The state’s unemployment rate has been stuck around 7 percent for the past year. Yet Kasich has restricted the waiver to 16 counties, mostly in Appalachia.
That leaves out Akron, Cleveland and other large cities. Work requirements make sense, except when jobs are so scarce and training programs are filled. The governor isn’t saying that the 130,000 affected are “somehow … shiftless and lazy,” is he?
A federal report recently found that Ohio had the 10th highest rate of hunger among the states. The share of Ohio families forced to skip meals or cut back on food accelerated at a faster pace than all but two other states during the past decade.
The governor has been cheered for moving some welfare money to local food banks. The tough line on the food stamp waiver plays to his cutting words for federal spending. “Fed up,” he exclaims about the deficits and debt, though that becomes a complication when you’re taking bows for all that federal Medicaid money.
Little of this got in the way last week. Kasich insists that he doesn’t stoop to “politics.” Let’s just pretend that he does, and note that politically speaking, he had good time. He reprised the “compassionate conservative,” the Bush the younger model that stemmed from Republican excesses of the 1990s.
Kasich put further behind the embarrassment of Senate Bill 5. Move over, Jan Brewer of Arizona and other Republican governors who have proved wily in expanding Medicaid. The guy from Ohio has delivered his own bold stroke.
And it all came before Tuesday, when Chris Christie romps to a big victory, and the conversation turns to his presidential prospects, the New Jersey governor, like John Kasich, eager to deride Washington and not always what he seems.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.