Medicare shatters NY

Perhaps scandalized former Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) blames himself, and his red-phone moment, for a dramatic upset Tuesday in which the GOP lost Jack Kemp’s Buffalo district for the first time in 40 years. Had Lee not photographed himself shirtless in a Baltimore hotel room during a Republican retreat and placed his pec pics on the Internet, perhaps none of this would have happened.

Republicans will be quick to blame Democrat Kathy Hochul’s 47-43 victory over Republican Jane Corwin in Lee’s old NY-26 district this week on a third-party candidate who, formerly a Democrat, declared himself a Tea Party candidate and managed to take 9 percent in the hotly contested special election. But Democrats are placing the blame squarely on the controversial Medicare overhaul authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that House Republicans passed last month. Having taken a political beating for nearly two years straight, they are now promising to talk of little else. 

ADVERTISEMENT
After arguing for two years that President Obama’s healthcare reform law goes too far, too fast to make changes to Americans’ healthcare, an issue deeply personal to voters that called for a less radical approach, 
Republicans backed Ryan’s plan to make Medicare a voucher system in which enrollees purchase coverage from private plans. Despite the fact that Ryan’s proposal would not affect current beneficiaries or anyone age 55 or older, the polling shows that for voters, his plan is too much, too fast.

House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Ryan and other GOP leaders saw the polling, knew the danger but purposefully pushed ahead, willing to take a risk that would show their commitment to deficit reduction. Without allowing too much time for public scrutiny, or even a recess back home with constituents, Republican leaders succeeded in rushing the Ryan budget to a vote in early April, just one week after striking a deal to keep the government running. The quick pivot to the Ryan plan was a way to move past the debate over a continuing resolution to fund the remainder of fiscal 2011, a bruising fight that left conservatives grumbling that Boehner had capitulated on budget cuts.

Having experienced similar Republican attacks after supporting the healthcare reform law that cut Medicare, Democrats could not believe the gift. They keyed up the firing squad and were raising money as soon as the votes were tallied. Indeed, Corwin’s stated support for the Ryan plan gave Democrats a fighting chance in a district they never should have won. Yet NY-26 is hardly the sign of a comeback; while victories in special elections came easily to Democrats in the last cycle, they went on to lose 63 seats and their majority in November. 

Ryan, a Kemp protégé, remains undaunted. He hopes the electorate’s appetite for a solution is stronger than its fear of change, and that it will embrace the GOP for daring to solve the toughest of problems. Yet the truth of Hochul’s victory in NY-26 matters less than the reaction to it. Despite the intentions of courageous leaders like Ryan, Medicare remains explosive and will detonate each and every time. Any debate of the favorite program always happens in a circle, and somehow never a line. Republicans and Democrats, in different ways at different times, attempt to halt the runaway train before it hits a wall. The disparate plans meet the same fate, opponents whip seniors into a frenzy, then complicit incumbents are cleansed in the next election. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The NY-26 election will soon scare Republicans as much as the Ryan plan scared voters. It guarantees there can be no bold and serious negotiations on repairing Medicare before the 2012 election, and likely beyond.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.