The old adage is that elections have consequences. Well, here goes: Every Democratic candidate in America just moved the word “Medicare” to the top of their campaign literature. And every Republican who voted for or otherwise embraced Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan is now casting about for some newly tailored talking points.
While it may say little about what will happen in the next election, Kathy Hochul’s win on Tuesday over Jane Corwin to fill the western New York congressional seat abdicated by the disgraced Christopher Lee provided Democrats with their first really good night in about three years and made Republicans squirm even more over the already discomfiting political perception that they’re trying to fundamentally restructure or dismantle the national social safety net. At least momentarily, the debate has been reframed.
Steven Law, president of the conservative outside group American Crossroads, waved off the election results as a partisan Rorschach test. “What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive,” Law said.
Of course, the coal-mine canary interpretations can always be a bit treacherous. And, at least in Washington, Republicans are attempting a downplay-and-tweak strategy. “I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from it,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told National Journal on Tuesday.”These elections, specials particularly, there’s a relatively small number of voters, and depend heavily on local issues and local candidates.”
But Medicare is far from a local issue, and Hochul’s hammering of Ryan’s plan of converting Medicare to a voucher system struck fear in the hearts of a good chunk of the 235 Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget.
Nimble Republican strategists are hoping to turn the Medicare debate against Democrats by pointing to provisions in President Obama’s health care reform. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., tried that tack on Tuesday, insisting that Medicare is so imperiled that Congress needs to restructure it to save it.
“If I were a senior, I would want it to change so it could be saved and strengthened for me, knowing that the Obama health care law took about $500 billion away from our seniors on Medicare not to save and strengthen Medicare but to start a whole new government program for someone else,” Barrasso said.
Republicans could still walk away from Medicare and act as if it had all been a big misunderstanding—Paul who? Recall the retreat from the 2005 GOP push on privatizing Social Security.
Already, Senate Republicans have been backpedaling. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., has been lit up by Democrats for embracing the Ryan budget before denouncing it, and for good measure handing Democrats some talking points in his explanation.
The GOP overestimated its mandate, said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on Tuesday.
“The American public are saying, look, yes, we were angry in ’06 and ’08, we changed horses,” Hoyer said. “And in ’10 we continued to be angry, the economy hadn’t come back.... We want to send you guys a message, and we did, we changed horses once again in the House of Representatives. But having said that, we don’t want you to turn our security over to the insurance companies.”
If the fundamental fiscal questions troubling Washington are to be answered, Medicare will need to join all the entitlements in deficit-closing reform. Hoyer conceded as much on Tuesday, but Ryan’s plan, however financially sound, has already likely become too politically toxic to be effective. Somber fiscal analysts may look back on NY-26 as the sort of unfortunate political entanglement that often trips up meaningful policy achievements.