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Dionne: Obamacare's strange bedfellows

  • Ohio Governor John Kasich explains why he supports extend health coverage through Medicaid, as offered under the Affordable Care Act. (CHRIS RUSSELL / Columbus Dispatch)

COLUMBUS, Ohio

It was the last thing the Rev. Tim Ahrens expected to do during a chat in his book-lined office at the historic First Congregational Church here: He expressed admiration for Gov. John Kasich.

Ahrens is a progressive social activist whose house of worship has deep roots in the old Social Gospel movement. He has demonstrated and organized against Ohio's conservative governor and, in 2011, even gave a kind of counter State of the State message outside the Capitol while Kasich was presenting his plans inside.

Yet Kasich, a one-time scourge of labor unions who was a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich's revolution in the 1990s, has endeared himself to liberal and low-income Ohioans by insisting, loudly and incessantly, that his state participate in the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. An unapologetic conservative is fighting the tea party and his own Republican legislature because he thinks the less privileged people of Ohio deserve health coverage.

Thus Ahrens' surprising confession last week, offered with a rueful smile: “One of the things I admire about John Kasich — yes, I did say 'admire' — is that if he connects to an individual who is hurting, he will respond.”

And having responded on the Medicaid issue, Kasich has gone all in. “He has not wavered from that place,” says Ahrens, who chairs the Central Ohio Medicaid Expansion Coalition. “He has become a crusader. He will not let go of this.”

Kasich's witness is important as an expression of his commitment to a form of evangelical Christianity that places a high priority on the poor. The governor told the Wall Street Journal last month of an encounter with a state legislator who disagreed with him on Medicaid. At Heaven's door, Kasich preached, St. Peter is “probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

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