On the campaign trail, it seemed impossible to pull a specific answer out of now-Gov. John Kasich.
Most of his interviews, debates and speeches had the same vague quality as his recent stream-of-consciousness State of the State Address — especially when it came to addressing Ohio’s budget shortfall.
To be sure, the same was true of the man he beat: former Gov. Ted Strickland. When Strickland initially ran in 2006, I twice had the chance to interview him as a member of The Gazette’s editorial board. Getting a specific answer out of the guy was like trying to squeeze beer from a bowling ball. He was just as coy in his 2010 campaign.
That’s why a story by Columbus Dispatch reporter Joe Vardon, published the day of Kasich’s budget release last week, got my attention. Kasich and his advisers didn’t write the 800-page spending blueprint in the two months since the governor took office. They began work on it in 2008, Vardon reported, when Strickland had been on the job barely a year and well before Kasich officially announced his run in 2009.
Vardon’s story reported: “In interviews, it’s clear that most of what they crafted back then will be a part of the governor’s budget today.”
I’m not saying a candidate shouldn’t do his homework and come into office with specific ideas. In fact, that’s the whole point. The problem is the public doesn’t get to evaluate that plan until the candidate has been elected. It’s not a blind date. It’s a blind marriage.
This isn’t about the actual content of the governor’s budget. As anyone who is not a slave to partisan politics might say, there are things I like about it and things I don’t. I would be happy to see Ohio get out of the liquor and lottery and toll road businesses. I’m glad to see a tuition cap on public universities, which in recent years seem to have confused themselves with multibillion-dollar corporations.
On the other hand, I’m sickened by the state’s continued sabotage of primary and secondary public education, which is the foundation of our communities and our future prosperity.
This budget is more an example of “government by surprise,” a term I learned from a former colleague. It describes occasions when public business is conducted behind closed doors. The 2001 decision by Medina County commissioners to close the Medina County Home — rapidly reversed and rightly so — was government by surprise.
The George W. Bush administration entering office already kicking around the idea of invading Iraq — long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — was government by surprise.
Candidates pay consultants good money to teach them this key to being elected to high office: Energize your base, but don’t alienate everyone else. Don’t risk giving specifics, don’t tip your hand, always speak in generalities no one can argue with. Those who love you will love you and those who don’t love you at least won’t hate you.
Thus we had the platform of Kasich’s campaign — the vagueness of which was noted by many newspaper editorial boards, even as they endorsed him:
• Lower taxes. (Hooray! Who doesn’t love lower taxes?)
• Make government more efficient and effective. (Hooray! Who hasn’t had a frustrating experience with bureaucracy?)
• Transform our education system. (Hooray! Who doesn’t want better schools?)
• End the influence of special interests. (Hooray! Who isn’t fed up with corporations and organizations carving out special deals for themselves at public expense?)
Until the minute Kasich’s budget was released last Tuesday, just how he planned to accomplish those things was a secret only insiders were privileged to know as they quietly hashed out the details over the last three years.
I’m sure local governments, school districts, nursing homes and others would appreciate having that much time to digest what the proposed budget would mean for them. Ohioans aren’t afraid of change, as Kasich and his allies contest. Mostly we’re afraid of the unknown, which is only natural.
I wonder if those in 4-H and other youth organizations would have been interested to know during the campaign that the governor’s budget would eliminate funding for the Ohio State Junior Fair? In his State of the State speech, Kasich quipped he would not be spending a night in a barn at the state fair as has been the tradition of Ohio governors. Now we see why. He might wake up with cow flop on his pillow.
The public has until June 30, when Ohio’s budget must be in place, to understand and fact-check the governor’s proposal and to engage their legislators and propose changes to a document Kasich rightly calls “transformative.”
Time was candidates churned out reams of policy material, offering chapter and verse on how they planned to govern. One wonders in this era of “gotcha” campaign ads if candidates will continue to hide their cards until they are safely in office.
In a democracy, it’s supposed to be the woman or man with the best ideas who wins, not the one with the most generic platform or most campaign money.
Will voters ever have the resolve to withhold their votes and campaign contributions until candidates open their playbooks and provide specific answers to specific questions?
I don’t know. I can only say I for one am willing to keep trying. Hand me that bowling bowl over there. I’m thirsty.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.