WASHINGTON — In an election cycle during which GOP base voters seem uninterested in candidates' level of experience in government, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has it in spades — three years in the Ohio statehouse, 17 years in Congress, six as the chairman of the House Budget Committee and now, five years as governor.
In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session on Tuesday with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the 2016 GOP presidential candidate defined those experiences as an asset and defended a number of his counter-conventional stances on issues that have put him out of step with the majority of the Republican presidential field.
On immigration reform — a topic that has drawn heated rhetoric from party frontrunner Donald Trump — Kasich said he supported securing the border, expanding a guest-worker program and implementing a path to legalization for a certain portion of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrations. Kasich stopped short of endorsing a path to citizenship.
“For those that are here that have been law-abiding, God bless them. They’re a critical part of our society. … I think they should have a path to legalization,” he said. “The idea that we’re going to pick these folks up and ship them out — that’s just unbelievable.”
Whereas many of Kasich’s rivals have drifted rightward on immigration reform after entering the GOP nominating contest, Kasich appears to have moved in the opposite direction. As a congressman, he advocated for repealing birthright citizenship, a Constitutional guarantee that says all children born in the United States are citizens.
Asked about the issue again, Kasich responded, “If you're born here, you're a citizen. Period, end of story.“
Kasich again boasted of his decision to expand Medicaid for low-income Ohioans under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, a course of action lambasted by hard-liner conservatives and rejected by many of his fellow GOP governors.
In the long run, Kasich said, putting government dollars toward improving health care for the mentally ill and the drug-addicted would pay dividends for society.
“We believe over time, it’s a smart issue of arithmetic, but there’s another issue,” he said. “How about morality? How about being a country that can embrace and help people to get on their feet?”
Kasich went so far as to offer to buy Bibles for those that disagreed with his rationale.
“There’s a book — it’s got a new part and an old part,” he said. “If you don’t have one, I’ll buy you one, and it talks about how we treat the poor.”
U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Javier Palomarez repeatedly praised Kasich as a “compassionate conservative” — a governing philosophy preached by former President George W. Bush that has since fallen out of favor with the GOP’s more conservative and tea party-aligned voters who see it as another form of big government.
Kasich insisted that voters are looking for a “reformer” who is occasionally willing to reject party orthodoxy.
“Sometimes you just have to lead,” he said. “You can’t let the yelling and screaming determine your decision-making.”
Still, Kasich’s willingness to adopt risky positions has not paid dividends with his party’s base yet. In the latest Pew Research Center poll, he drew less than 2 percent support among possible GOP base voters. He has also dropped from second place to seventh place in New Hampshire in recent weeks, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a state Kasich himself has said he’s counting on to propel his campaign.
Not all of Kasich’s stances, however, fall outside the traditional GOP view of the role of government. Following the shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Kasich, like many of his fellow contenders, said restricting the nation’s guns was not the answer, pointing to a larger spiritual deficit in the country that needs to be addressed.
“I don’t think that gun control would solve this problem — the deeper issue is alienation. The deeper issue is loneliness. The deeper issue is no attention to an individual who’s really struggling,” he said. “It takes a lot more complicated and comprehensive answer than just a simple law.”