John Kasich went to the Oval Office when he was 18, for an improbable 20-minute private meeting with President Richard Nixon, and now he wants to return and occupy the big chair.
Ohio Gov. Kasich, 63, entered the crowded Republican primary race this week and made his first stop in the Lowcountry on Friday, meeting with supporters and taking questions at a gathering at the Scout Boats plant in Summerville.
He’s well known in Ohio, where, at age 26, Kasich became the youngest person to win a state Senate seat, but is working to build name recognition elsewhere. He represented an Ohio district in Congress from 1983 to 2001, hosted a Fox News show and worked as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, and has been governor since 2011.
At the boat plant, Kasich spent about 40 minutes telling a crowd of more than 80 people about himself, including his childhood in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh populated by socially conservative Democrats, where his grandfather was a first-generation American coal miner and his father was a mailman.
“I never really met a Republican” while growing up, Kasich said, but by age 26 he was a Republican politician.
The private meeting with Nixon, Kasich said, came after he convinced the president of Ohio State University, where he was a first-semester freshman, to hand-deliver a letter to the U.S. president. Several years later Kasich graduated with a political science degree, went to work for a state lawmaker, and launched his own career in politics.
While the governor told people about himself and, in broad brushstrokes, his policy ideas, he stayed away from the political red meat that primary candidates often toss to the crowds. There was no mention of poll-leading rival Donald Trump, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s emails or Obamacare, for example.
Audience member Dean Hunt, a 71-year-old Navy veteran living in Ladson, is from Ohio and familiar with Kasich. Hunt said Kasich has helped make Ohio a better place, and did a good job in Congress.
“When he was on the Budget Committee in Congress he pretty much kept his finger on my money,” Hunt said.
Kasich chaired the House Budget Committee in 1997 when the Balanced Budget Act and the Taxpayer Relief Act were passed with large bi-partisan majorities. That package of spending and tax measures helped create a federal budget surplus during the final years of the Clinton administration, aided by a booming economy and higher tax rates on top incomes that Congress approved in 1993 without a single Republican vote.
Kasich said that if he returns to Washington as the president, a balanced budget will be his top priority, followed by strengthening the military and reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy. He said balancing the budget is the best way to help the economy and create jobs.
“That’s our greatest moral purpose, creating jobs,” Kasich said. “We’ve got to stop all this arguing and fighting and hating, and get this country working together.”
The 1997 Balanced Budget Act was supposed to have created budget surpluses far into the future, he said.
“It was Republicans that spent it all,” Kasich told the audience, as he explained why he thinks the president should have a line-item veto, as does the governor of Ohio. Lawmakers from both parties approve spending that the president should be able to strike from legislation, he said.
Reminding a partisan audience that the federal government went from budget surpluses to deficits when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, under George W. Bush — rather than, say, blaming President Barack Obama for more recent deficits — may seem an unusual strategy for winning a Republican primary election, but Kasich is presenting himself as an independent thinker.
The Republican Party, said Kasich, “is my vehicle, not my master.”
He didn’t always tell people in the crowd what they wanted to hear, declining a chance to bash Common Core educational standards.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford attended the event and gave Kasich a boost, but said later that he isn’t aligned with the Kasich campaign.
“I have to admire the way you walked the walk on the budget,” Sanford told Kasich in front of the audience.