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John Kasich on Education, Economic Inequality, and Healthcare

Brian Timmermeister


When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker dropped out of the Republican Presidential Primary Monday, that left one Midwesterner left in the GOP field--Ohio Governor John Kasich. Kasich has visited the state far less than some of his Republican counterparts, just twice in this election cycle. That will change when he stops by Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and Davenport in the next week. Kasich isn't worried about that lack of time he's spent in the state.

"Being in the race for only two months, you know, you've got to divide up your time, where you can be most effective, but you'll me seeing more effort from me in the state of Iowa."

Kasich touts his economic record both in Congress, where he was the chairman of the budget committee, and as governor of Ohio.

"We don't leave anybody in the shadows. We're here to help the drug-addicted get rehab, the mentally ill to get on their feet, the working poor to have some healthcare so they don't have to spend some time in the emergency rooms."

He's drawn criticism from the right of his party for his decision to expand Medicaid with federal dollars, a decision he's quick to defend in economic terms.

"There's an arithmetic side. I think it's much more correct to try to keep people from being in and out of prison, which we find the drug-addicted, and to get them on their feet so they can become productive tax-paying citizens."

In this River to River interview, Ben Kieffer talks with Governor Kasich about healthcare, immigration, education, and agricultural development. You can read the full transcript below:

Ben Kieffer: You are one candidate in a large, albeit shrinking, field of GOP candidates. Let me start by asking you, briefly, what sets you apart from the rest of the candidates in terms of positions on issues in the GOP?

Governor John Kasich: Well, Ben, first of all I think it’s my record and my experience. I was chairman of the budget committee in Washington when we actually balanced the budget, paid down debt, cut taxes, and ran surpluses. I also was a member of the armed services committee for eighteen years so I have national security experience. And I am also, of course, governor of Ohio where we have gone from deficits to surpluses. We’ve grown almost 350,000 jobs, our credit is strong, and we don’t leave anybody in the shadows. We’re here to help the drug addicted get rehab, the mentally ill to get on their feet, the working poor to have some health care so they don’t have to spend their time in the emergency rooms. As we get stronger we make sure that everybody has an opportunity.

BK: This was supposed to be an election where there was no question about who would lead the 2016 Republican ticket. It was supposed to be a governor drawn from the deep pool of current and former state executives, such as yourself. Yet, we see that the nine current and former GOP governors who entered this presidential race, only one, Jeb Bush, comes close to top tier status at the moment. Two have dropped out. Poll leaders among Republicans, Trump, Fiorina, Carson, are all from, really, outside the political establishment. What does that tell you, as a Washington insider, about this election cycle?

JK: Well, I’m kind of hard to describe as a Washington insider. I’ve been a reformer all of my life. And what it tells me is people, right now, are expressing their concern that people who have been in politics have not delivered. And I have. And I’ve been able to, not only fly the plane, but land the plane with passengers on board to make sure that we have success in the things that we try. I have been a conservative mainstream reformer all of my lifetime. And, by the way, in New Hampshire, critical New Hampshire, I am in the top tier of candidates right now, and we’re beginning to rise in Iowa. So, I just think that people are dissatisfied with what they see and I understand that, but I think if they learn about my record as the response has been, particularly in New Hampshire, we’re able to rise because I think they do want somebody who has experience and can demonstrate success.

BK: Until this week, Governor Kasich, you’ve only visited Iowa twice, I believe. That’s far less than your Republican counterparts. Why haven’t you spent more time in the state up to now?

JK: Well, I’ve only been in the race for two months and I’m going to be there this weekend and we’ll have a number of things that were going to do while I’m there. But I’ve been there more than a couple times, because I actually tried this back in the very late nineties. So I spent quite a bit of time in Iowa. Being in the race for only two months you got to divide up your time where you can be most effective. But you’ll be seeing more effort from me in the state of Iowa.

BK: Do you see an opening now for you in Iowa now that the only other Midwesterner in the GOP race, Governor Walker has dropped out?

JK: Well, I will be the only Midwesterner governor in the race, I guess the only Midwesterner. I don’t know that geography matters that much. I think what matters are three things: one are issues, two is vision, and three is that people like you. I think it’s just a matter of my being able to be there to let people poke me and smell me and figure out whether they like me or not. I understand the Iowa process, and my goal is to be able let them get to know me again.

BK: All right, I want to get to the issues in just a moment, but to follow up on some news this week, Governor Scott Walker says he wants other struggling candidates to drop out of the presidential race so Republicans can coalesce behind an alternative to Donald Trump. As a candidate who is currently nationally polling less than five percent, do you feel that tug from the party to unite behind someone more mainstream?

JK: The national polls are not that significant to me. We don’t elect a candidate on the basis of national polls. You elect a candidate on the basis of how they’re performing state to state. And, as I just I told you, I’m in the top tier of New Hampshire, which is absolutely a critical state. And frankly, a launching pad for almost all the candidates in my lifetime.

BK: Now that you’re ramping up your campaigning in Iowa, surely you’ve looked that the Walker campaign or your people have. Do you have lessons to take away from the Walker implosion?

JK: I really have not looked at the Walker campaign. I don’t, I don't run politics on the basis of what other people are doing. I do what I want to do and get myself out there. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t work, great. I just don’t spent my time thinking about other people.

BK: You’ve drawn a lot of heat from the right of your party, Governor, for accepting federal dollars for Medicaid expansion in Ohio as a part of Obamacare. Despite taking the expansion for your state, you believe the rest of Obamacare should be repealed and replaced. Why?

JK: Well, because it’s not controlling cost. That’s part of the purpose of it was to control cost. When we expanded Medicaid--by the way, Reagan, Ronald Reagan had expanded Medicaid three or four times. And the reason I expanded it was for two reasons. One is because there’s an arithmetic side. I think it’s much more correct to try to keep people from being in and out of prison, which we find the drug addicted, and to get them on their feet so they can become productive and then tax-paying citizens. And the last place we need to put the bipolar or the schizophrenics is in prison. We can get them treatment and get them on their feet. That saves us money as well because it costs 22,500 dollars a year to put them in prison. In terms of health care reform, I think we need to start practicing quality health care and not quantity health care. So I believe the primary care physicians should be empowered to guide us through a complicated health care system getting results to keep us healthy but at the lowest possible prices. It's market-driven. We’re doing some of it in Ohio and I think it would work nationally.

BK: So why not use what we have so far that’s been achieved by the Affordable Care act as a foundation and tweak it in the directions that people decide, 'Okay, this is not working out; we need to tweak this,' change the parts that are not working well?

JK: I think because it’s fundamentally flawed. And when something is fundamentally flawed, then it needs to be fundamentally replaced. That's the way I feel about it.

BK: How would that run? Because undoubtedly people listening, many people listening here in Iowa, across the nation, there are millions who have health insurance now under Obamacare who didn’t have it.

JK: Right.

BK: So what do you tell them when they don’t see a viable Republican replacement? Would they lose their insurance?

JK: I think I have a viable Republican replacement, which I’m outlining for you. And we would not want to be in a position of where people would not have an ability to have insurance. It would be something that we would be able to direct through the way in which we do things in our state. As you know, I expanded Medicaid which has given us an opportunity to cover more people. So, if we’re looking at what is a philosophy, in terms how I feel about people who have traditionally been ignored, it should be clear here, not just with rhetoric, but with talk, that I’ve been willing to do that. Now, we believe that by practicing quality health care and empowering our primary care physicians to get us through the labyrinth of health care, and then being able to have the flexibility of a Medicaid system that would allow me to apply it in the most effective way to help my folks out here in Ohio, and across the country that we would have a system that will not ultimately lead to break down because of the rising cost of health care. The problem with Obamacare is it continues to drive up the cost of health care and when that happens, we could end up getting in a situation where we could end up in a situation where health care is rationed, and I don’t like that because, if that happens, it's usually the people that don’t have much say that get rationed.

BK: Let’s switch to the topic of immigration, a controversial issue, undoubtedly an issue that will stay with us through this election cycle. Governor Kasich, in the past you’ve said you favor a pathway to legal status for immigrants who are already in the country. What would immigration reform look like under you as President?

JK: Well, I think we need to make sure we protect our borders so we would have to have secure borders, and once we achieve that there will be no more excuses as to why people come in: if you violate our border, you’re going to go back. But I also believe that we ought to have a guest worker program so people can come in and do their work and be able to go home. And then with the people who are here who have not violated the law over time, paying a penalty, then they would be able to acquire legal status.  That’s what I would do.

BK: What’s your reaction to Donald Trump’s proposals, that have received a lot of press, to build a huge, beautiful wall, I guess, in his words, and deport the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in this count—

JK: Well you heard, you heard what I’m for, that’s what I’m for.

BK: Okay. You were raised a Catholic. The Pope is in the country for a visit right now. Some are claiming that with his visit that he’s wading into American politics, particularly on the issues of climate change and immigration. What’s your take? Are you listening? Do you think he’s—

JK: I love the Pope. I love the Pope. I think he’s fantastic. I think he’s thrown open the doors of the church to talk about the fact that religion, that the Lord is about grace and forgiveness, and that we all have the potential to lead lives greater than ourselves and that what we do here on Earth really matters, and I like all that. I don’t subscribe to all of his philosophy, and I’m not sure what all of it really is when you get right down to it, from the standpoint that sometimes we say that people say things that they really don’t say.

BK: Isn’t it pretty clear that he’s saying that now is the time to act on climate change though, right?

JK: Look, I think that we have to be good stewards of our environment. It comes directly from St. Francis of Assissi, from Francis Schaeffer, a great theologian, that we have to be very sensitive about our environment, we need to take care of it, but we don’t need to worship it. So, I think that making good assessments, proper assessments, accurate assessments, and making sure that we are sensitive about this beautiful environment that we were given to us from the Lord needs to be respected.

BK: Just to make sure our listeners know where you stand on climate change, because there is a spectrum of opinion in the GOP ranks. You believe that climate change is real, do you believe that humans are a factor?

JK: Yes, but I’m not in a position to tell you how much.

BK: Humans are the factor are what you mean, yea.

JK: Well, they’re a factor, but as to how great of a factor, I think the jury’s still out on that. I think that we can have both economic growth and a good environment. We do it in Ohio in the area of fracking. We do it in Ohio when it comes to our beautiful Lake Erie. It’s important. We do it in Ohio when we realize we need to make advances in alternative energy. Those are reasonable things. But I also know that the current federal EPA is imposing rules on our state that are frankly not achievable and would throw many people out of work. I think that’s an extreme approach.

BK: So your message is that states should get into handling climate change and that the federal government, the EPA, should be not a part of it?

JK: No, that’s not what I said. I didn’t say that. I said that the--

BK: Well then clarify please.

JK: I think the current EPA rules being dictated out of Washington are extreme. And in my state, we’ve been able to improve emissions, a reduction of over 30% over the last ten years. I think a reasonable approach to this makes sense. But extreme approaches that would throw people out of work. You know, based on the fact that we cannot at this point understand the extent to which human beings contribute, although we do contribute, it means that you have to proceed but you have to be cautious. But at the same time, we don’t want to do things that damage our environment when there are ways in which we can do it that are consistent with people having prosperity and at the same time protecting our environment.

BK: Let’s talk about another major, what seems to be a major, issue in this election cycle, the economic inequality. What would be, for instance, your tax policy as president? To what degree would any tax policy under you address income inequality, economic inequality?

JK: I think that income inequality is related to skills, I don’t think it’s fundamentally related to tax policy. There are some things that we can do, for example in my state, when we cut the income tax, we created the Earned Income Tax Credit, but that was designed to give people at the bottom the incentives to be able to work more and not be punished for being more successful. I believe the fundamental problem with income inequality is related to an education system that is not producing the kind of skills in people, agrarian system that is not flexible, and our inability to begin to train people for jobs that currently exist. Workforce training is a really critical part of this. So, in terms of a redistribution of wealth, I don’t support that, I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem. I think the problem is that we don’t always deliver the skills or provide an environment for people to get the skills so that they can be more valuable and therefore be able to have their incomes rise. And I think on top of that, I do believe that we need to give incentives to the businesses in this country to invest in plant and equipment so that our workers can have the tools that they need to be able to be more productive, and as they’re more productive, of course, wages will rise.

BK: This disparity between the very rich and the middle class, the disappearing middle class, is chalked up to skills?

Well, I think it’s a variety of factors.

BK: What are the other ones?

JK: Well, I think I just named them. One of them is the fact that we have not provided the incentives that we need for businesses to invest in plant and equipment. You see, because when workers have more tools, then they’re in an ability to be more productive. When they’re more productive, their wages will rise. In addition to that, when we have a big chunk of Americans to graduate from our K-12, who are not prepared to do the things that they were given the natural skills to do. When people go to high school, at least in our state, and I think it’d be true in Iowa, when 40% of the graduates are not prepared to go to college and they’re in a position of where they have to take remedial education, we’re not arming them with the skills they need so that they can be more valuable in the workplace. And when we impose all these rules and regulations, including Obamacare from Washington, and we stunt the ability of businesses to grow that is also another problem that affects people’s ability to get work and to get higher wages.

BK: You’ve long pushed for education reform in your state of Ohio. At the same time, I see you’ve used your veto power to cut 84 million dollars from funding of public schools. It’s been a contentious issue here in Iowa, school funding, we had a big fight here between the governor and the legislature that extended the legislative session this year. What role do you think the federal government should play in education?

JK: Well first of all, we have the highest amount of school funding in K-12 in Ohio history. I’ve raised school funding by close to two billion dollars. When you talk about cutting 84 million dollars out of education, that is a program that we have devised over time that would make sure that those districts that are more vulnerable to a phasing out of particular tax revenues are able to be helped, but that those districts that are wealthy and can do more for themselves are not going to be protected like the poor districts, because the poor districts are the ones that need to get the help. And my philosophy on public education is if you have a school district that has greater wealth and a greater capability to be able to help itself, school funding shouldn’t be directed to them, school funding should be, by and large, directing to those districts who have the least amount of wealth capability to support themselves. That is on top of the fact that we’ve had record increases in K-12 education. Now in regard to the federal government, I believe K-12 education ought to be shipped back to the states and the states should be held accountable from the standpoint of spending that money on education, and then we ought to look at the best practices around this country. I believe in choice, but I believe in public education. We’ve lowered vocational education to the 7th grade. We’ve given students an ability to acquire credits for higher education while they’re still in high school. We believe in adult and continuing education, skills training, all of those things. But I think that the education is best run on the state and local level, with local school boards designing programs that fit their people.

BK: You mentioned the growing agriculture sector, very important, of course, to a leading agricultural state like Iowa. What would you do to support agricultural sectors as president?

JK: Well, I think export programs, trade programs, are really important. I have a long record, both in Congress and here in the state, where agriculture community has done well. I think that agriculture is not just traditional sources but I think agriculture offers great opportunities in other advanced areas and, you know, we need to trade, we need to make sure our farmers are—well, we killed the death tax so we don’t want to make sure that people have to sell the farm in order to pay their taxes. But I think, you know, a program that encourages them to grow and to be able to find markets is critically important.

BK: Okay. Thank you very much for this conversation. I have one last question here, as you’re ramping up your campaign to come to Iowa in the coming weeks, do you have three words that you would use to describe Iowa?

JK: Three words to describe Iowa? Fun, prosperous, and how about, uh, beautiful, how’s that?

BK: Okay, I would agree with all those. [laughs]

JK: I have to point out that at least once time a year we have a challenge with Iowa, and that’s when Ohio State Buckeyes play Iowa. Well, I guess it would be not only football, but once in a while, basketball. You guys have been doing pretty well lately. And once in a while, you whack us in football as well. It’s a fun rivalry, and look, I enjoy coming, I went to the fair, I had a great time, I really enjoyed doing the soapbox, and I’ll be seeing people in their neighborhoods.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River