John Kasich’s Unforgivable Truth About Obamacare

Ohio governor and smart money 2016 GOP hopeful just complimented Obamacare, and said a repeal isn't happening. Can the Republican base ever get over this moment of honesty?

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When we Washington types sit around and handicap the GOP field for 2016, we tend to talk about the known quantities, the people prancing around before us on a daily basis thrusting their elbows in one another’s general direction, your Pauls and Cruzes and Perrys and so on. Then Bush and Christie are mentioned. Eventually, though, some clever person shyly pipes up: “You know, keep one eye on John Kasich.”

And everyone thinks, “Yes, that’s smart.” Because Kasich is the governor of the echt-purple state, Ohio. Because he’s popular, and he’s cruising to reelection. Because his association with some of the party’s batshittier positions is remote. Because governors are usually better candidates than senators anyway.

Always has made a lot of sense to me. But yesterday, the case for Kasich got harder by dint of the governor’s electorally unfathomable and instantly controversial remarks about Obamacare. Campaigning Monday, Kasich told the Associated Press that a full repeal of the hated law is “not gonna happen.” And then he said this: “The opposition to it was really either political or ideological. I don't think that holds water against real flesh and blood, and real improvements in people’s lives.”

A Republican governor with presidential aspirations acknowledging that Obamacare is improving people’s lives is akin to...well, for starters, a Democratic governor with presidential aspirations saying the Iraq War was a dandy idea. An astonishing statement. His press aides quickly scrambled to explain that Kasich still wants to repeal and replace the law and emphasized that they were seeking some kind of correction from the AP, allegedly on the grounds that the “it” in Kasich’s quote might have meant only the Medicaid expansion, not the entire Obamacare law. [Update: Yes, it would appear that the "it" was just the Medicaid expansion, and the AP has now changed their report to reflect this. Kasich's press aide Rob Nichols called me Tuesday morning to say: "Absolutely no news was broken yesterday."]

Be that as it may, stuffing this cat back in this bag probably can’t be done. The quote is out there now. Flesh and blood improvements in people’s lives! Via Barack Obama.

Intense partisans on both sides make up their minds about politicians less on intellectual or policy-substantive bases than on what we in the pundit trade call “affective” ones—having to do with their emotional responses, how a candidate or a situation makes them feel. It’s true as I say on both sides, but it’s much truer on the right these days than on the left, because the right-wing base has real power over Republican politicians, whereas the left base doesn’t have remotely that kind of power to frighten Democratic pols. If a Democrat angers the left, he or she will likely survive it except over one or two issues (the aforementioned Iraq War), and indeed is likelier than not to end up prospering from having done so (the Sister Souljah paradigm).

If a Republican enrages the right, though, he’s cooked. And it can be the smallest and most symbolic thing. Charlie Crist got thrown out of the party for one hug, after all. Mitt Romney was never the base’s favorite, of course, and neither was John McCain. But you’ll notice that when each was the party’s nominee, neither whispered a syllable that would risk offending the base. McCain elevated Sarah Palin. Romney finally adopted some slightly more centrist-seeming positions during the first debate, but he was extremely clever about that, because in doing so, he confounded the media, which were aghast at his sudden reversals of position. So in other words, the base forgave him for the crime of moving to the center because he did it in a way that made the media mad, which pleased the base voters more than his shifts displeased them.

So, back to Kasich. It was one thing to take the Medicaid money. He was one of nine Republican governors to do so, so he had company there. But there’s a right way and wrong way for a Republican governor to accept the Medicaid money. You take the Medicaid money by still complaining about the law and denouncing it, lying that your hands were tied or something like that. You don’t take it by saying it’s actually good.

But Kasich on this point was already in trouble with conservatives, because he took the money a year ago in what conservatives in the Buckeye State thought was a really shifty way. He went around the GOP-controlled state legislature, which opposed the expansion, and won a 5-2 vote on a state Controlling Board whose authority even to make such a decision was questioned at the time by conservatives. Kasich had, in the run-up to the vote, traveled the state campaigning to accept the money, even occasionally making (are you sitting down?) moral arguments in favor of helping the poor.

So all that was known. But none of it was a sound-bite like this. The obvious implication here for 2016 is that, as president, he would not seek to repeal the law, even though he still insists otherwise. So picture the GOP candidate debates of late 2015. They will be asked if they’re going to repeal all of Obamacare. Yes, the rest will thunder! But Kasich will perform some meek tap dance about repeal and replace, leaving the good parts. Good parts?! To GOP primary voters?

Well, he’ll certainly stand out from the field. And who knows. Maybe the 2016 GOP will decide that this sin is forgivable. The urge to beat Hillary Clinton will be fierce, and if the polls say Kasich can do it, then maybe voters will cut him the necessary slack. But that would be a very different electorate from the one we’ve known. My thought for now: Move that eye you were keeping on Kasich over to Indiana’s Mike Pence.

This piece has been updated throughout.