From the standpoint of the Democratic Party, it is unfortunate that the next national elections are 17 months away. So many recent events have gone the Democrats’ way: the extirpation of Osama bin Laden; winding down of U.S. engagement in Iraq, and with it reduction in military spending and casualties; a booming stock market; the economy’s upswing; the unemployment rate’s fractional downward trend; the pratfalls of Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich; and last Tuesday’s stunning result in the special Congressional election in up-State New York.
In a fortified Republican stronghold, running against an orthodox and locally eminent Republican, battered by huge oppositional spending, the Democratic nominee won the race. Kathy Hochul, starting as a 20-point underdog, captured 47 per cent of the votes, while 43 went to Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, 9 to the mis-labeled Tea Party nominee and one per cent to the Green Party candidate.
More auspicious for Democrats than the fact of achieving an upset victory is how it was accomplished.
Ms Hochul pitched her campaign as a call to save Medicare. Loud and long, she warned that the Republican-backed “Ryan budget” for the Federal government would kill Medicare, or entitlements for conditional government payments for medical bills. That warning (factually correct, though incomplete) proved to be persuasive, especially to higher-aged voters.
The pitch that worked for Kathy Hochul could be potent for Democratic candidates all over the country. The Ryan budget is not just a proposal that can be disavowed. It is a legislative package (also containing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy) that was put to a vote in the Congress. While all Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against it, all but three Republicans (including Chris Gibson, GreeneLand’s Representative) voted for it. It then went to the Senate, where all Democrats voted against, while all but five of the 47 sitting Republicans voted for it, even after they knew the result of the by-election in up-State New York. They can’t readily disavow that position.
It is a position of vulnerability. “Ryan’s budget may reflect Republican values and approaches,” says Stuart Rothenberg, the expert elections analyst, “but from a political point of view it is a serious burden with no possible near-term payoff” (5/27/11).
That burden could prove to be seriously valuable to the Democrats, at a time of peculiar vulnerability. In the Senate, as it happens, although Democrats hold a majority of seats, 23 of those seats will be subject to election in November 2012, while only 10 Republican-held seats will be open. In the House of Representatives, after majority control swung to the Republicans in 2010, the Democrats must win 25 seats in order to regain control. Sixty-one seats that are held now by Republicans are in districts where Barack Obama won in the 2008 presidential elections. Fourteen of those were won too by John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2004. They look especially ripe for Democratic takeover. But next year’s Congressional elections will be preceded by a shuffle of districts and district lines. In the wake of the Census, New York and other Northern States will be losing seats to Republican-leaning southern and western States.
Fortunately for the Republicans, moreover, there is time enough to adapt to the Corwin disaster. There is time to devise subject-changing themes, to concoct better rationales for the Ryan budget (which cable television commentator Rachel Maddow gleefully labels the “Republicans’ Kill Medicare bill”), to seize on strategic possibilities that are thrown up by the course of events.
Fortunately for the Democrats, attempts by Republican operatives to get away from the Medicare issue, attempts to make competitive adjustments, are likely to meet internal as well as external resistanceSome top-level Republicans downplay the significance of the Hochul victory and thus the need for a change of course. Karl Rove pointed out that Ms Hochul won only one more percentage point of votes than Barack Obama, as the presidential candidate in 2008, gathered in that district. (Yes, but John McCain won the district by 56%, while the State went heavily for Obama. And Ms Corwin’s Republican predecessor won the seat in 2010 by 76%).
Another form of downplaying the Hochul victory consists of noting that electoral support for the “conservative” candidates, Republican and Tea Party, surpassed the Democratic candidate’s margin by 51 to 47. (Yes, but the man who put himself on the ballot under the banner of the Tea Party, Jack Davis, wealthy local industrialist, was nothing like a “conservative” in the “tea party” vein. His entitlement to that brand was denied, in advertisements and broadcasts, by all sorts of national “tea party” figures. His favorite issue, apart from autobiographical effusions, was the evil of “free trade.” His votes would not have gone overwhelmingly to the Republican nominee).
Other influential Republicans acknowledge that the Hochul victory demonstrates that the Ryan/Republican budget is at present a political liability, while advocating a Stand Fast response. Ryan himself proudly claims that he draws up measures on the basis of merit not popularity. “I don’t consult polls to tell me what my principles are or what our policies should be.” He urges his co-partisans to remain steadfast in support not only of the Medicare-privatizing provision of that budget package, but also of other key provisions: raising Medicare eligibility from age 65 to age 67; converting Medicaid to a block-grant program run by the States, cutting tax rates for corporations and the rich, and a reducing discretionary spending for domestic programs by more than 20 percent…. In the same vein, the head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Tom Cole, urges his colleagues to “stay with our argument” while conducting a “stronger marketing” campaign.
The conservative pro-Republican columnist Jonah Goldberg anticipates that the Medicare-killing Ryan budget, which enabled a Democrat to capture a heavily Republican seat in the Congress, “will likely define both the presidential and congressional elections in 2012.” He urges the Republicans to stand fast; no retreat, no weaseling. He joins another conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, in contending that the best Republican nominee for President in 2012 would be Paul Ryan.