By Mike Lillis - 05/24/11 12:25 AM EDT
On the campaign trail, her message was jobs, jobs, jobs. But as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seeks a way to win back the Speaker’s gavel, she’s shifted her chief focus to an issue that haunted her party at the polls just six months ago: Medicare reform.
In press events, floor speeches, town halls and fundraising drives, Pelosi has hammered away at a Republican plan to shuffle future Medicare patients into private insurance plans and scale back some of their benefits.
“The fight of this Congress and beyond will be to preserve Medicare and not have it abolished,” Pelosi told The Washington Post last week. “The three most important issues we should be talking about are Medicare, Medicare, and Medicare.”
The message has reverberated with voters, who support the theory of balancing the budget but don’t seem to want to cut Medicare — a leading cause of deficit spending — to do it.
Unlike a jobs agenda — a nuanced topic where the legislative remedies are in constant dispute — the defense of Medicare is a much easier sell, political experts say. Republicans tossed the Democrats a political softball, some noted. All the Democrats had to do was hit it out of the park.
“It’s fairly obvious — the Republicans handed them an issue, and they very opportunistically leapt at it,” said Gary Jacobson, political scientist at the University of California San Diego. “It’s easy to explain; it’s easy to demagogue — it would have been shocking if they hadn’t leapt at it.”
Nowhere have those dynamics been more prominent than in New York’s 26th district, where voters will go to the polls in a special election Tuesday to replace former GOP Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned in February after it was revealed that he had posted shirtless pictures of himself on a social website.
Although GOP candidate Jane Corwin was expected to take the seat easily in the conservative-leaning district, recent polls have the Democrat, Kathy Hochul, ahead by four points. Democrats are attributing the surprise figures to Corwin’s support for the Republicans’ Medicare privatization plan.
“N.Y.-26 wasn’t even going to be on the map until the Medicare vote,” said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke only anonymously due to the political nature of the topic. “It’s a clear indication that Medicare is a potent issue for Republicans.”
Indeed, on the eve of the N.Y.-26 contest, the statement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mentioned only one issue: Medicare.
Passed in April as part of their 2012 budget proposal, the Republicans’ Medicare reforms would shift future Medicare patients — those younger than 55 now — into private insurance plans in lieu of getting their benefits directly from the government.
Sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the proposal would also require future beneficiaries to pay higher premiums and more out-of-pocket costs than they would under the current single-payer program.
Citing the surprise success of Hochul in New York, the Democratic aide said party leaders have every intention of taking their Medicare message nationwide.
“No question about it,” the aide said. “There are 54-year-olds all across the country.”
It’s not that Pelosi and the Democrats have abandoned their jobs message. Indeed, Democratic leaders have trumpeted their economic platform, including a series of proposals promoting domestic manufacturing — the so-called Make It in America agenda — and legislation requiring oil companies to drill in spots where permits have already been approved.
Democratic leaders have also accused the Republicans of running on a platform of job creation and then abandoning it once they took control of the House.
In the packet of talking points given by Pelosi and leadership to Democratic members prior to the recent House recess, members were encouraged to focus on all of those issues.
“Republicans voted to end Medicare as we know it in order to pay for tax breaks for Big Oil, while ignoring Americans’ top priority: job creation,” the packet reads.
Still, proposed changes to Medicare is the issue that is resonating most with the voting public, and that is where Pelosi and her party have shifted and honed their focus.
Republicans have pushed back against the notion that Tuesday’s special election will be a referendum on the Ryan budget’s Medicare reforms. Instead, they say, the race is closer than expected because Jack Davis, a multimillionaire Tea Party candidate, has wrested votes from some district conservatives.
“[Corwin] is facing a three-way race that has tended to make the race a lot closer than anyone thought,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters at the Capitol on Monday. “But no, I do not think it can been seen as a signal as to the role of the budget reforms we have proposed.”
Still, a Siena College poll released Saturday tells a different tale, revealing that Medicare is the single most significant issue guiding voters in N.Y.-26. That was especially true of Hochul supporters, 38 percent of whom listed Medicare as their chief priority.
The issue has put Republicans in a tough spot. On the one hand, if they criticize the Ryan budget, they get attacked from the right, as was the case recently with Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who’s now a GOP presidential contender. Yet if they support the Ryan budget, they get in trouble with voters, as appears to be the case with Corwin.
The dynamics leave Republicans walking a fine line, championing the reforms they support without alienating voters.
“Our Republican colleagues can’t seem to believe the same thing today that they said yesterday,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) quipped Monday.
Joanna Burgos, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Monday that the Democrats’ Medicare plan is the larger threat, endangering seniors’ access to care.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Burgos said in an email, “and that’s why the Republican budget blueprint saves Medicare for future generations with no disruption for those in and near retirement.”
The political dangers surrounding the Ryan plan haven’t been overlooked by Senate Republicans, who have slowly been distancing themselves from the contentious proposal.
Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), a centrist Republican who’s seeking reelection next year, applauded Ryan this week for “getting the conversation started,” but was quick to add that the Medicare reforms stray too far from the traditional benefit.
“Our country is on an unsustainable fiscal path,” Brown wrote in an op-ed in Politico. “But I do not think it requires us to change Medicare as we know it. We can work inside of Medicare to make it more solvent.”
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), another centrist Republican, has also said she opposes the Ryan plan.