Ohio Gov. John Kasich is straddling the fiscal and defense hawk line as he enters a crowded Republican field of presidential candidates whose strong-on-defense rhetoric has sought to tap into — and stoke — the American public’s anxiety over global threats and the rise of the Islamic State.
Kasich launched his second presidential run on Tuesday by touting his brazen spending fight as a congressman against the all-powerful Pentagon more than two decades ago. Kasich’s record in the ring, from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, separates him from a field of 15 other candidates, but likely is little remembered among voters in 2016. This time in Washington is at times downplayed by his campaign, which is promoting Kasich’s common-sense “lessons of the heartland” from the governor’s residence of one of the country’s biggest swing states.
For the entirety of his time in Congress, Kasich sat on the House Armed Services Committee, “where I served for 18 years on national security,” he said. In “just the blink of an eye” after arriving in Washington in 1983, he said he discovered waste in defense spending.
“It was taking the resources from the people that needed it who were serving in the military. We were wasting money. And I said we need to clean this up,” Kasich said. “And they’re like, ‘No, come on. It’s the Pentagon. Forget about it. It can’t happen.’ Well, we passed some legislation and we made things right. We saved money. We improved the system. And we helped the military. They said it couldn’t be done and we proved them wrong again.”
But the infamously outspoken Kasich didn’t put too much distance between himself and “more money for defense” presidential campaign platitudes.
“Let me be clear: our military must be improved. We need to cut the bureaucracy,” he said, but continued, in a familiar vein, “and we need to strengthen our services.”
“Now, I’m a person that doesn’t like to spend a lot of money. But in this case, national security climbs to the very top of the heap, because we must be strong, and we must assume our role as leaders of the world.”
Most of the 2016 GOP candidates have broadly criticized what they argue are crippling defense spending cuts by President Barack Obama and have pledged to increase the Pentagon’s budget and the military’s size, especially at a time when, as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, put it: “The whole world is on fire!”
In his announcement speech in Columbus, Kasich blazed his own path on defense, a move familiar to him. Nearly two decades ago, then-Rep. John Kasich, chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, pushed back against pressure to buy more B-2 bombers, built by Northrop Grumman. Overhauling and reforming Defense Department spending would produce “enormous savings,” he argued, predicting it could be “the single biggest issue” — of 1996.
When Kasich says he’s a “person who doesn’t like to spend a lot of money,” he can point to his chairmanship of the Budget Committee during the Clinton years when Washington balanced the federal budget. In marked contrast to his four rivals running for president from the Senate, he is the rare politician who can claim that he helped to both shut down the government and also turn a deficit of more than $150 billion into a surplus of more than $230 billion.
But contrast that budget crunching reputation with Kasich’s call on Monday to increase the size of the U.S. Navy, arguing that the current 272 ships is not enough to deter China in the South China Sea or support the Islamic State fight. Kasich received a visit in Ohio this month from Reagan’s Navy Secretary, John Lehman, who shares this position, and five other national security officials. Others suggest such an expansion is unnecessary.
“We once had a 600-ship navy, and it’s really eroded,” Kasich said in South Carolina this month.
Kasich for more than a year has advocated for a more active U.S. role abroad, both militarily and diplomatically — both of which cost money. At the “Sheldon Primary” in 2014, Kasich called for the U.S. to continue its military presence in Afghanistan and step up sanctions on Russia and Iran.
But in his Tuesday speech, Kasich also gave a softer view of today’s security threats: We’ve had it much worse. The usual Republican attacks on the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind” were noticeably absent.
“We pick up the paper. It’s Chattanooga, it’s Fort Hood, it’s ISIS,” he said. “Are we safe? Are we going to be safe to go to the mall? Are we safe to leave our homes? These are the worries that many Americans have.
“But I have to tell you, as serious as these are — and they are very serious — we have had a lot worse, much worse in this country,” he continued, citing the Civil War, racial violence, the Great Depression and “that crystal clear morning and the horror we felt on 9/11.”
The laundry list of the country’s lowest moments was intended as something novel on the 2016 campaign trail so far: a note of optimism.
“We’ve always got through it, because the testing is what makes you stronger. It’s the challenges that make you better. I have lived through them, and I have become stronger for them, and America has become stronger for them,” he said. “And here’s how we’ve done it: by staying together.”
But Kasich’s base for his candidacy remains unclear. In many ways he’s competing for support with Jeb Bush, a former governor also from a large swing state who shares Kasich’s Washington experience and party-mainstream gravitas. Jeb preaches the same “compassionate conservatism” employed by Kasich but more closely associated with his brother, former President George W. Bush.
Kasich dropped out of the Republican race in 2000 when then-Texas Gov. Bush sucked the donors dry. “I had this jet airplane to take off but I didn’t have any gas for it,” Kasich said of his decision, National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher reports. Now Kasich says of the Bush family rematch, “I thought Jeb would suck all of the air out of the room, and it just hasn’t happened.” With the political group backing him reporting $11.5 million raised, Kasich decided to run.
And while Kasich hasn’t been in Washington for 14 years, he’s also playing that as a strength. Ohio voters recently reelected him, and he brags he won 86 out of 88 counties, according to Goldmacher.
Kasich’s campaign is banking on a polling bump now that he’s made his candidacy official. He’s been polling at an average of 1.5 percent nationally — not even enough to make the stage at the first GOP debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
Then again, there’s a reason Ohio is a presidential battleground.