Running to the left of many of his GOP presidential rivals on issues like abortion and immigration, Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday made his pitch to New Hampshire voters as a relatively moderate Republican who would reach across the aisle to balance the budget, slow the growth of Social Security and Medicaid and secure a path for Americans to find meaning and happiness.
The White House hopeful, who entered the presidential race just last month, is expected to pin much of 2016 prospects on the Granite State, where voters typically care less about hot-button social issues than those in the first-in-the-nation nominating state of Iowa. At a town hall Wednesday in Salem, Kasich attempted to craft a kind of “big tent” message that could pose a viable threat to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – the presumed choice of establishment Republicans.
Highlighting his record in Congress, where he was able to balance the budget for four years and create a $5 trillion surplus under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Kasich advocated a bipartisan approach to solving the nation’s most pressing problems.
“Any Social Security plan, Medicaid plan has to have some bipartisan support,” Kasich said. He added that the same was true of the immigration debate, which has recently been dominated by questions about whether presidential candidates would end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States.
Kasich, who used to be in favor of ending birthright citizenship, now opposes the idea along with Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He also supports a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, putting him squarely at odds with GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, who this week proposed deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
“We’re not going to fix the immigration problem without having both parties to fix it,” Kasich said. “I’m a conservative with conservative principles, but you just can’t do it alone.”
Asked about his position on abortion, Kasich again separated himself from many of his rivals by saying that though he has “always been pro-life,” he does believe there should be exceptions in the cases of rape, incest or a woman’s life endangerment. On Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to have an abortion, Kasich said: “Obviously, it’s the law of the land now and we live by the law of the land.”
An awkward moment came during the Q&A when a woman pressed Kasich on how he would protect Social Security.
“You’re cutting me off very quickly. Understand what I’m trying to say,” the woman said, “I want to see what your plan is. I admire you. I like you.”
Kasich deftly eased the tension with a hug. “She’s steamed up and I don’t blame her,” he said. Although he offered little in the way of policy specifics about his Social Security plan, Kasich did say that “we can’t turn our backs on poor people.”
For all his talk about compromise, however, Kasich has a number of conservative positions and accomplishments under his belt. As governor of Ohio, Kasich cut taxes by $3 billion during his first term and proposed reducing them further by $500 million earlier this year. Though he supports Common Core education standards, unlike the more conservative candidates in the field, Kasich did cut nearly $80 million from Ohio’s education budget in July with a single line-item veto. And in a recent interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kasich called climate change “some theory that’s not proven.”
“Pundits and politicians alike have described Kasich as a thoughtful Republican from a swing state who expanded Medicaid and attended a gay wedding,” wrote Ohio state Sen. Joe Schiavoni in a USA Today column Wednesday. “As Minority Leader in the Ohio Senate, I can tell you my job would be a whole lot easier if John Kasich were actually a moderate.”
Kasich spoke about working with teachers unions to achieve better results at a New Hampshire summit hosted by Campbell Brown earlier in the day, but he was not asked about his education policies during the town hall. When questioned by a young woman who introduced herself as an environmentalist, Kasich praised her activism and said he thought Pope Francis was “onto something” when he warned of unprecedented destruction to the ecosystem in a recent papal letter to bishops.
“God created us, and part of our relationship is to be good managers and stewards to the rest of his creations,” Kasich said. “He doesn’t want us to worship the environment – that’s called pantheism; he wants us to respect the environment.”
On defeating ISIS, Kasich took a hawkish stance, saying “we need to put boots on the ground.” He also refused to take the bait on questions about whether he would implement gun safety laws.
“At the end of the day, people want to be able to protect themselves and their families, and I’m for that,” Kasich said. “I’m not for eroding the Second Amendment.”