John Kasich Successfully Begins Two-Year Ritual of Self-Flagellation

At Holy Cross-Immaculata church in Cincinnati, there's a Good Friday tradition called "Praying the Steps," in which parishioners slowly climb the 85 steps up to the church, saying a prayer on each step. It may take a while to get to the top, but that's the entire point of the exercise—the time and effort it takes is a symbol of one's devotion. Keep that in mind for a moment as we talk about that state's governor, John Kasich, and his complicated feelings about the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday, Governor Kasich went through a ritual that has grown no less absurd for being so familiar. It goes like this: 1) Republican politician accidentally acknowledges that the ACA is the law and repeal efforts are futile (or even that it actually helps people); 2) Conservatives do a collective spit-take; 3) Politician issues apology/clarification, making clear his unshakeable belief that the ACA was vomited out of the very fires of hell and of course he wants to repeal it; 4) Conservatives say, "All right then. Just don't let it happen again."

You may think that this was bad for Kasich, presuming that he will be running for president in 2016 (a possibility, but not a sure thing). In fact, this little episode is no problem at all. It may even help him.

This started when Kasich told the AP, in response to a question about the repeal of the ACA, "That's not gonna happen." The article then quoted him saying, "The opposition to it was really either political or ideological. I don't think that holds water against real flesh and blood, and real improvements in people's lives." After he saw the steam coming out of conservatives' ears—I mean my god, not just saying that the ACA isn't going to be repealed but that it improves people's lives?!?—Kasich protested to the AP that he was talking not about the law in general but just about the expansion of Medicaid, which despite being perhaps the most important part of Obamacare is totally different from Obamacare. "I have favored expanding Medicaid, but I don't really see expanding Medicaid as really connected to Obamacare," Kasich now says, and reiterated his commitment to repeal. Which is like saying, "Sure, I own a Chevy Camaro, but you'd never catch me dead in a car made by GM."

Pathetic and ridiculous? Sure. But this is a performance Kasich was going to have to undertake eventually. He pushed through Medicaid expansion over the objections of the Republican legislature, one of nine Republican governors to do so. His argument was pretty simple: he said there were over 300,000 people in Ohio who would get health insurance, and the federal government would pay for almost all of it, so it was idiotic to pass it  up.

Of course, Kasich knew he was going to have to explain it to GOP primary voters if he decided to run for president. But he could look back at 2012 and take heart. At the outset of that campaign, lots of wise people said there was no way Mitt Romney could get past primary voters who would demand to know why he passed a health care reform that was the model for the ACA. So what did Romney do? First, he made a ridiculous claim, that his health care reform—an individual mandate, an insurance exchange, subsidies for people with low incomes, and generous Medicaid benefits — was nothing at all like the hated Obamacare, because, you know, Obama! Nobody believed him, but once he said it often enough and proclaimed his hatred of Barack Obama and Obamacare loudly enough, they basically gave him a passing grade on the issue.

The point wasn't the substance, it was the ritual itself. The party's conservative base wanted Romney to get down on his knees and, if not exactly beg forgiveness, at least demonstrate that he would never betray them again. He would wash himself in the waters of supplication and self-flagellation, then come out clean—or at least clean enough—on the other side. And so he did.

Kasich knows he has to enact the same ritual, and this is the first step. The point isn't the destination, it's the journey. Kasich will have to pray the steps. And in the end, just as in 2012, the identity of the Republican nominee won't hinge on the question of who fought Obamacare the hardest, so long as everyone claims their loathing for it with equal fervor.