BOCA RATON, Fla. — It was almost as if John Kasich wanted to reach out and pat Scott Walker on the head.
The Republican governor of Ohio and the Republican governor of Wisconsin were seated onstage at the opening plenary session of the Republican Governors Association annual conference. Before an audience of roughly 2,000 donors, political operatives and lobbyists watching from the darkened floor of the cavernous ballroom, the first fireworks of the 2016 Republican presidential primary went off.
Call it a dry run for the primary debates. Five governors all thinking of running for president were on the stage when Kasich, a wily 62-year-old former congressman, demonstratively disputed Walker’s retelling of political history.
Walker, the 47-year-old conservative star, was arguing that President Barack Obama is more hostile toward congressional Republicans than President Bill Clinton was during the '90s, teeing up a critique of Obama’s plans to issue an executive order on immigration this week.
During the 1995-96 budget dispute between Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress, Walker said, “Clinton did not say the Republicans in Congress aren’t going to work with me so I’m going to do an executive order.”
“He sat down with them,” Walker said.
Kasich, who like Walker just won re-election to a second term in a Rust Belt, labor-dominated state, snapped almost matter-of-factly.
“No, he shut the government — the government got shut down first,” Kasich said.
The audience laughed. And then the two men, both of them likely to run for president in 2016, began to talk over each other as NBC’s "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd stroked his red goatee in delight.
“There was tremendous animosity,” Kasich said, almost yelling, to remind the younger Walker that he, Kasich, had been there himself as a member of Congress.
“It wasn’t —” Walker tried to get out before Kasich cut him off.
“Scott, it was!” Kasich said. “I’ll tell you, when you’re sitting around and we’ve got Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole at each other over a shutdown, it wasn’t easy either.”
Walker went on to finish his point, which was basically that Obama is unwilling to work with Republicans and is wrongly going forward on his own with the immigration executive order.
Kasich waited for him to finish, and then continued to contrast himself with Walker and the other Republican governors onstage — Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Indiana’s Mike Pence and Texas’ Rick Perry — who are all looking hard at running for president. The message Kasich wanted to make clear, and the one he appears likely to carry into a crowded presidential primary, was that he is not a typical Republican who simply opposes Obama, criticizes Democrats and talks about the need to cut taxes. Instead, he conveyed, he is a problem solver who wants economic growth but also wants government to help people and fix things.
“My only point is, I don’t like what [Obama’s] doing,” Kasich said, “but what I will say: This is emblematic of where we’re going forward as a country. I mean, are we going to deal with the real problems of health care, the real problem of immigration, the real problem of a divided country?”
“If we had not got the Clinton people to the table to negotiate … we would never have balanced the budget,” Kasich said. “Nothing gets fixed without some bipartisan support. You can’t do it without bipartisan support.”
He transitioned out of his point by gesturing to his experience and making a joke. “And look, I did it. I was one of the architects of that balanced budget. And it was fun. You have Madeleine Albright come in to talk to you about foreign aid, that’s enough for a lifetime,” Kasich said. The room broke into laughter again.
Kasich had suckered Walker into a discussion of a piece of political history in which the Wisconsin governor was not an expert by issuing a somewhat subtle reproach to Walker and perhaps Jindal — the two most provocative rhetorical bomb throwers on the stage — and pointing to his own role in the 1996 budget deal.
“You gotta be careful with the rhetoric,” he said, “because you get too far out on that and people don’t want to deal.”
There may have been something more to the exchange as well. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Walker had taken a thinly veiled shot at Kasich over the Ohio governor’s decision to expand Medicaid last year.
“My reading of the Bible finds plenty of reminders that it’s better to teach someone to fish than to give them fish if they’re able. … Caring for the poor isn’t the same as taking money from the federal government to lock more people into Medicaid,” Walker said.
Time and again at the governors' event, Kasich — who ran briefly for president in 2000 before dropping out — took pains to stake out a different position on major issues from his fellow Republican governors. “I have a little bit of a different message here,” he said.
On granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants: “I am not closed to it. You know why? Everybody in this country needs to feel like they have an opportunity.”
On Common Core educational standards: “We’re not doing well in the world. If we’re not careful the Googles and PayPals will be invented somewhere else. … I do think we have to have good standards. I don’t see that this is Obamacore. … The idea that kids in Iowa, kids in California, kids in Ohio, there ought to be a higher level of achievement? I’m completely for that. I think it makes sense. … It is purely local control.”
On expanding Medicaid in Ohio: “Ronald Reagan expanded Medicaid, OK? Because he said there were people that were left out. We have seen stabilizing of people in our emergency rooms. Do you understand that when people can’t get comprehensive health care they get sicker and end up in the emergency room, and guess who pays for it? We do.”
There was another way in which the hourlong discussion was the unofficial first debate of the 2016 cycle and mirrored the 2012 debates. In 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scored big points in South Carolina by attacking debate moderators like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Fox News’ Juan Williams.
On Wednesday, Jindal drew cheers from the audience by lambasting NBC’s Todd for spending the first 30 minutes of the conversation talking about Obama’s coming action on immigration.
“We have an hour. We have now spent 30 minutes talking about the president breaking the law,” Jindal said, as the crowd clapped. “I’d like to talk about energy. I’d like to talk about education.”
“You don’t have to take a long time answering [the questions],” Todd shot back.
“You’ve asked it five times,” Jindal said with some exasperation. “I’ve answered it five different ways.”
Moments later, Perry, the only governor on the stage who ran for president in 2012 — with disastrous results — jabbed at Todd somewhat playfully but with jarring bluntness.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Perry said, smiling. “I’m thinking you’re probably not going to get invited to be a moderator for a presidential debate.” Todd just looked down and shook his head.
Kasich, at the end of the session, took the edge off his disagreements with his fellow governors by praising them one by one.
“You’ve got Walker, he runs for election every week. And he wins,” Kasich said.
It was a first look on the national stage of Kasich’s considerable political talents. Whether he can last in a primary with positions that may anger the conservative grass-roots base is an open question. But there is no doubting that the Ohio governor is a unique political animal.