HUDSON, N.H. – John Kasich sometimes brings a scoreboard to campaign events. Its green numbers run ever upward, under the label “OUR NATIONAL DEBT.” They had just rolled past $18,439,978,000,000 when Kasich asked his small crowd a question.
“If I tell you that I have a plan to balance the budget,” he said, “would you believe me?”
One man said yes. A few people shook their heads. Others just stared at him, unmoved.
Kasich, the governor of Ohio and former chairman of the House budget committee, is running for president as the Republican Party’s truth-teller on taxes and spending.
Many of his opponents in the GOP primary are proposing tax cuts that are projected to add trillions of dollars to the national debt over the next decade. Kasich has defined his campaign, in part, in opposition to those proposals, warning his party that another batch of what he calls “fantasy tax plans” won’t work for the economy and won’t help the GOP defeat a Democrat such as Hillary Clinton in 2016.
It doesn’t seem to be a message Republican voters want to hear this year, or even one that many Republican candidates want to sell. And that has Kasich warning his party could lose the White House.
“What I get concerned about is,” Kasich said on his campaign bus later that day, “if you have a plan where the numbers don’t add up, come the fall, I worry it’s going to put Hillary in the catbird seat, putting her in a much stronger position to win.”
Kasich is focusing his campaign in New Hampshire, where he hopes a strong finish will vault him toward the top of the presidential field. Polls currently show him getting about 7 percent of the GOP primary vote in the state, according to the Real Clear Politics average, which puts him in sixth place.
Several forces appear to be working against Kasich and his message in this primary season. The biggest is that Republican voters, particularly working-class ones, remain anxious about the economy. And while those voters tell pollsters they want action to reduce the deficit and debt, they’re also responding more favorably to candidates who have played down budget discussions.
Instead, those candidates have emphasized what they say are the economic threats posed by immigrants (in the case of Donald Trump) or the all-boats-lifting-power of trillion-dollar tax cuts (in the case of Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, among others).
Republican voters have developed a sense, said Republican strategist David Winston, “that economic growth is the starting point for solving all problems. That’s what people are sort of listening for at this point.”
A lot of GOP primary voters now believe “we need to rip out the whole tax code, start from scratch,” said James Pethokoukis, a right-leaning commentator who writes frequently about tax issues for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. If you’re Kasich, he said, “You’re not going to compete with that. His idea doesn’t seem that radical.”
Kasich believes that conservative voters will embrace his record and his agenda -- once they hear more of his proselytizing about the power of budget-balancing to speed up growth and lift up American workers.
Voters, he said in a long early-evening interview, “care about jobs, is all they care about. If I’m not able to explain the need to balance the budget, and how that leads to economic growth, then I will have failed to communicate effectively.”
Kasich has tried other ways to stand out in the crowded Republican field, including harshly criticizing front-runner Trump as a toxic brand for the GOP. On Sunday, he called Trump “somebody who divides this country here in the 21st century, who’s calling names of women and Muslims and Hispanics and mocking reporters.”
Mostly, though, he has stressed a record of balancing budgets, as governor and in Congress during the boom years of the late 1990s.
He touts an economic plan that offers a tax cut that is smaller than most of his rivals’, and similar to what Mitt Romney proposed as the GOP nominee in 2012, coupled with a detailed array of measures to reduce federal spending. He promises to slow the growth of Medicare spending, to freeze non-defense domestic spending at current levels and, most importantly, to eliminate the federal budget deficit within eight years.
It can take him a while to work up to it in speeches, but Kasich does make the case that fiscal restraint is the key to increased growth, arguing that the budget-balancing plans he helped implement under President Bill Clinton led to lower interest rates and stronger business investment.
He is also quick to criticize his rivals -- in speeches, interviews and in the thick of televised primary debates -- for pushing tax cuts so large that voters deem them irresponsible, thereby crimping the party’s chances of winning back the White House. He implies that fiscal irresponsibility is a sort of pandering that voters will eventually see through.
“I wish we had no taxes, okay?” Kasich said in the interview. “But it doesn’t work that way. I think the Democrats talk about big spending increases, the Republicans talk about big tax cuts. It’s on the order of ‘a chicken in every pot.’ I like to cut taxes -- I’ve cut taxes more than any sitting governor in America. This is the irony, right?”
Some conservatives worry that Kasich’s often-brusque manner -- which he displayed prominently in the most recent debate, frequently interrupting moderators and his rivals -- is blunting his message.
Kasich’s budget record is “second to none,” said Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation who has informally advised several GOP candidates on their tax plans and been a leading advocate of the shift in focus to large tax cuts. “He clearly has credibility on the issue. The problem is, his personality can be so self-righteous and abrasive that it can turn off the voters he was hoping to appeal to.”
Polls suggest that deficit reduction could be a powerful issue for courting conservative voters. A September poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly eight in 10 Republicans said the federal budget deficit was very important to their votes, which was nearly identical to the proportion of voters who said terrorism was very important.
Still, another Pew survey earlier this year suggested Republicans see budget issues as less pressing this year than they did in the 2012 election, when the federal deficit was larger. It has fallen to an estimated $426 billion, or 2.4 percent of the economy, this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That’s lower than the average of the last 50 years and well below the $1.4 trillion deficit incurred at the height of recession. The national debt continues to climb in dollar terms, although the CBO projects it will hover around 74 percent of gross domestic product for the next five years before rising again in the 2020s.
In Hudson, Kasich tried hard to sell the two dozen people who’d turned out to see him on the gospel of balanced budgets. A local banker named Deborah Novotny spoke up to say, no, she didn’t believe he could balance the budget.
Kasich launched back into the details of his plan. Novotny wasn’t swayed. After the event ended, she told a reporter that balancing the budget still seemed like an overwhelming task -- and that other issues, such as New Hampshire’s heroin epidemic and what she called an eroding national respect for police and other authority figures, were more important to her.
“We’ve gone so long” without a balanced budget, she said, “maybe there are some other things we need to fix first.”