On Tuesday, Republicans lost a special congressional election in New York. Yesterday the Senate voted down the House GOP budget 40-55, with seven Republican senators defecting. The conventional wisdom holds that there is a causal relationship between these two events. Has House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity instead driven Republicans down the road to ruin?
First, some perspective is in order. The NY-26 race featured a former Buchanan Republican turned Democrat turned Tea Party independent Jack Davis. Davis has spent millions in three recent congressional campaigns. Running on conservative themes, he took 9 percent of the vote this time around.
"If anyone can find a race next year with a similar configuration, be my guest and apply the 'lessons learned' from this race to that one," warned political prognosticator Charlie Cook before the special election. "But implying that the outcome of this race portends anything about any conventional race next year amounts to cheap spin and drive-by 'analysis' of the most superficial kind, which is sadly becoming all too prevalent in Washington."
Republicans fared poorly in special elections throughout 2009 and 2010. The two most prominent exceptions -- Charles Djou winning a House seat in Hawaii due to Democratic divisions and Scott Brown beating one of the most inept Democratic campaigns in Massachusetts history to claim Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat -- portended nothing for the November results in those states. New York, with its dismal state GOP, was the Republicans' worst state for special elections during that period. Yet Republicans still gained 63 House seats in the national midterms.
Saying that the Democratic spin is wildly overblown is not the same thing as saying Republicans have no Medicare problem, however. The final Sienna Institute poll showed that 21 percent of voters in NY-26 considered Medicare their top issue. Among independents, it was about one in four.
At eight points, the Democrats' Medicare advantage with independents was significant but not overwhelming. Yet pre-Ryan, Medicare wasn't showing up alongside jobs, the economy, and the deficit as one of the primary voting issues in many recent competitive elections. GOP heiress Jane Corwin hemorrhaged downscale conservative voters to Jack Davis' -- and ultimately Democrat Kathy Hochul's -- benefit.
The very next day, Paul Ryan was up with a video forcefully defending his Medicare reforms. "The president's plan," he says by way of contrast, "is to let a panel of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats decide how much, or how little, Medicare will pay doctors and which services Medicare will, or will not, pay doctors to provide for their patients." Under the Republican plan, Ryan argued, "Patients will have the freedom to choose from a list of guaranteed coverage options -- the same kind of system members of Congress enjoy today."
"The urgent need to reform Medicare and the president's misguided approach have left us with a serious question to ask: Who should be making health-care decisions for you and your family?" Ryan concludes. "A government monopoly and a panel of bureaucrats in Washington DC? Or you?"
But where is the rest of the GOP, starting with the candidate beaten in NY-26? After the House and Senate votes on the budget, this is no longer the Ryan plan. With fewer than a dozen exceptions in both houses, this is the congressional Republicans' plan. Instead of helping to make these arguments, they are increasingly backing away (including, arguably, the House Ways and Means chairman whose tax cut ideas have become one of the plan's chief political vulnerabilities).
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's particularly clumsy and obnoxious disavowal is only the most prominent example. But even the conservative pushback against Gingrich misses the point. The main objective is to present an alternative to the Democrats' plan of dealing with Medicare by raising taxes and rationing care. Neither throwing Ryan under the bus nor canonizing every technical detail of a budget that cannot currently pass is the way to advance this goal.
Voters fear the complexity of the Ryan-crafted budget and are susceptible to Democratic claims that Medicare is being cut for no other purpose than to cut taxes for the wealthy. "Let's throw together tax subsidies, incredibly complicated health insurance products, customers who are going senile, and corporations staffed by bright MBAs with spreadsheets," quips conservative blogger Steve Sailer. "What could possibly go wrong?"
Yet the Republican budget polls much better when voters understand why the reform is being undertaken and what safety nets remain in place. Some say that suggests Ryan should run for president, since he is the only one who can explain his plan. A better solution is for Republicans to get serious and avoid the mistakes of the Clinton- and Obama-era health care debates.
Republicans were very effective in railing against the Clinton and Obama health care plans, and could be equally effective in attacking the Democrats' new plan for dealing with Medicare. The Independent Payment Advisory Board will likely prove as unpopular as any "death panel." Raising middle-class taxes to fund uncertain middle-class retirement benefits will probably also be a nonstarter.
In the long run, however, you can't beat something with nothing. Few Republicans thought seriously about health care even when they were fighting Democratic plans at the federal level. They confined themselves to scoring cheap points that would come back to haunt them later -- "get the government's hands off my Medicare" -- or embracing watered-down versions of the Democratic proposals. (Witness all those Republican presidential candidates with a history of advocating an individual mandate.)
With no Republican interest in the issue, it was inevitable that the Democrats would eventually gain enough power to deal with health care on Democratic terms. On Medicare, Paul Ryan is trying to prevent this history from repeating itself. But he can't do it alone.
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