Last week the Democrats scored an upset victory in a special election in New York's 26th district, which encompasses the upstate territory between Buffalo and Rochester. Republicans were supposed to be on the upswing since the midterm elections held just six months ago, and the seat has been Republican since the 1960s. But Democrat Kathy Hochul won with 47 percent of the vote, ahead of Republican Jane Corwin, who received 42 percent.
Republicans offered many excuses. One was that independent Tea Party candidate Jack Davis took away votes from Corwin; but polls show many of those voters' second choice was Hochul. Another was that the Republicans were tarnished by the fact that the prior incumbent, Christopher Lee, was forced to resign after he emailed a shirtless photograph to a woman he was trying to woo over the internet; but that was in fact a complete non-issue for voters.
No, the real focal point was Medicare, and specifically the Republican proposals to overhaul the federal government health program put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan for the 2012 budget. Hochul ran night and day on the issue and it resonated. But many Republicans don't want to face up to it the fact that their proposals are unpopular.
Ryan blamed the Democrats' willingness "shamelessly distort and demogogue the issue, trying to scare seniors to win the election." Indeed, Republicans have taken to label the Democrats charges "Mediscare". But this is rich coming from the GOP politicians, who themselves tried to whip up fear last year by referring to the Obama proposals on Medicare as instituting "death panels".
Moreover, voters do not need to be scared into rejecting the Ryan Medicare proposal. His plan would remove a basic provision of Medicare, which is government-provided health care to senior citizens. Instead, he would provide "premium support" so seniors could private sector insurance - with the catch that these premiums would rise only in line with overall inflation, not healthcare inflation, which has risen more rapidly.
The special election result in NY-26 shows that the Republicans have mis-read their situation fundamentally. After losing to Obama and the Democrats in 2008, the party was in disarray. Unsure of how to resurrect themselves, they latched on to a small, loose coalition of older Americans, which we now call the Tea Party. This "party" seemed to offer a path for Republicans to return to their s0-called philosophical roots as low-tax and low-spend, and media interest (fuelled, ironically, more by liberals than conservatives) also made the movement appear dynamic. With the focus in the 2010 midterms on the Democrats, who seemed unable to address the economy, the Republicans made big gains, which only seemed to encourage them. Their campaigns talked constantly about the dangers of the growing debt.
But the supposed dynamism was really shallow. Many voters switched only because they were fed up with the Democrats. And the Tea Party and rank-and-file Republicans were never really serious about deficit reduction. For them, the concept was an abstract one, more a symbolic representation of what they saw as national decline. That's why, in the summer of 2009, many Tea Party senior-citizen protesters could shout "hands off my Medicare" at town halls, and feel no sense of contradiction. Whenever specific cuts are mentioned - especially to those affecting seniors - the Tea Party doesn't want to hear.
But the Republican leadership thought they were on to a winner. The Ayn Rand devotee Ryan believed he was ushering in a new era. But now many of his fellow Republicans are getting cold feet. Newt Gingrich was castigated for labeling the Ryan proposals "right-wing social engineering", but he spoke something that many Republicans actually believe. It is noticeable that none of the putative Republican candidates for President have embraced the Ryan plan.
Now, after the NY-26 result, the Democrats believe they have momentum on their side. What's noticeable, however, is how conservative their approach is. The Democrats may have their facts correct about the Ryan plan, but their whole message is negative and fear-ridden: "hold on to what you've got" is their essential message. Most Democratic politicians, in fact, believe that cuts to Medicare are necessary - but they're just laying low now and watching the Republicans squirm. More importantly, they have no answer for ever-rising healthcare costs; the Obama 2010 health bill, while criticized as "radical", did not address this fundamental problem.
So, what we have are two parties competing on the basis of fear. The Republicans say we should worry about the debt exploding. The Democrats say we should worry that the Republicans will destroy our health security. Neither offers a real solution to healthcare, nor a positive vision of economic advancement.