House Republicans not backing away from Ryan Medicare proposal

House Republicans are underlining their support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reforms a week after the bitter loss of a New York congressional seat.

Even as newly emboldened Democrats hopeful of retaking the House intensify their criticism, there seems to be little appetite or inclination among Republicans for modifying their approach — even if that approach ends up carrying electoral costs.

“To back away from this or to get skittish for fear of losing a few seats or even the majority would be pretty darn irresponsible,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) told The Hill.

Though that kind of view might be expected from a member of the House’s Tea Party Caucus like Gingrey, it is broadly shared, even by more centrist figures like strategist Mark McKinnon.

“Republicans should not run from the Ryan plan,” McKinnon said. “That is a lose-lose proposition. We’re tagged with it anyway, so running doesn’t help. But it’s also a bold and courageous plan that I believe, over the long run, voters will recognize and reward.”

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GOP leaders on the Sunday talk shows rallied around the Ryan plan even as they acknowledged the role it played in last week’s loss of a GOP-leaning district. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said he voted for the Ryan plan, while House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he “absolutely” stood behind it.

The result in New York highlights the danger Republicans face of becoming trapped between a fiscally hawkish base on the one hand and a general population that dislikes specific government cuts (even if it supports the idea in the abstract) on the other.

Those who think there is a fundamental tension between the cost-slashing proposals beloved by the Tea Party wing of the GOP and the broader desires of the electorate seem, for the moment at least, to be mostly outside the Republican Party.

Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor who has written at length about the Tea Party, noted that defeats like the one that occurred in NY-26 are “what happens when you cater to people who themselves don’t know what they want.”

Dr. Don Levy, the director of the Siena Research Institute, which polled the NY-26 race extensively, said that the kind of ambivalences seen among voters in the district could have broader resonance.

“Obviously, it makes sense to so many people that you have to live within your means,” Levy said. “But in terms of the federal government and state government, there continues to be a tremendous demand for services. They’re not called ‘entitlements’ for nothing. People believe: 'I am entitled to these things.' "

Intra-GOP tensions were on display in the defection of five senators when the Ryan budget came up for a vote last week. Four members of this quintet (Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) are assumed to have voted against it because its cuts went too far, while Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) believed they did not go far enough.

The issue is not one of Medicare alone. The GOP’s zeal for budget cuts might be increasingly leading the party toward positions that self-evidently hold some political danger. Witness Cantor's insistence last week that emergency aid to help deal with the after-effects of the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., should be partly offset by cuts to other government programs.

Cantor was lambasted by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who said that if the disaster had occurred in Cantor’s district, “I have a hard time believing … that he would be talking about how additional disaster relief would not be available unless we found some other program from which to take it.”

There is also the question of whether the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to bail out the big U.S. automakers — a move sharply criticized at the time as another example of government overreach and money-splurging by Republicans — could end up paying political dividends. This question was brought into renewed focus last week with the announcement that Chrysler had paid back more than $7 billion in loans from the federal and Canadian governments.

Vice President Biden made the auto bailouts the subject of this weekend’s White House radio address, reminding voters that “at the time, many people thought the president should just let GM and Chrysler go under. They didn’t think the automobile industry was essential to America’s future. The president disagreed.”

Despite this, most Republicans seem to think that the party needs to fight its corner harder — but does not need to engage in any fundamental reappraisal of strategy or electoral platform.

“I think it would be dangerous for my party to assume NY-26 is a one-off, though it may well be,” Gingrey acknowledged. “But it might be a blessing in disguise [prompting us] to make sure the messaging is correct, honest and effective. Certainly, we need to examine that.”

For most Republicans, it seems, NY-26 did not reveal any weaknesses that cannot be cured by the power of better messaging.