Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Medicare Death Panel Claims Its First Victim. Could GOP House Bigs Be Next?

While Paul Ryan's radical deficit-reduction plan has predictably died in its crib, the Republican Party's mission to destroy Medicare has not been forgotten by voters, who claimed their first but not last electoral victim of the year: State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who was expected to cakewalk to victory in a special election in New York state's 26th District, a Buffalo area seat that the GOP has owned since we were kicking Richard Nixon around.

The special election was called after Republican Congressman Christopher Lee, a family values scold, was outted when a website published a beefcake photo of him topless that he had sent to a prospective chippie on CraigsList. He lied about his marital status and his job, and soon had joined the ranks of America's unemployed.

Corwin was the beneficiary of millions of dollars from Republican groups, as well as a visit from no less an eminence than House Speaker John Boehner. But between her insistence in clinging to the Kill Medicare line until it was too late, her ridiculous attempts to position herself to the left of Democrat Kathy Hochul, and the entry of Democrat-turned-Tea Partier Jack Davis into the race, it became Hochul's to lose.

Not even resorting to that old Republican reliable -- mudslinging -- worked for Corwin.

She endorsed a series of attack ads, including several against Davis. One included a much-publicized video that Corwin operatives said showed Davis assaulting a young Republican volunteer who was tracking him with a camera, but the attack backfired when it was disclosed that the volunteer was Corwin's chief of staff.

And so when the sun came up this morning in NY-26, it was Hochul and not Corwin who had gotten her ticket punched for Congress, winning a seat by six points that, according to pollmeister Nate Silver, would ordinarily be won by Republicans by about 12 points.

Huge, and hugely embarrassing for a party that six months ago seemed ascendant.

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Lock-step House Republican support for utter foolishness is a known commodity, with electoral suicide coming in a close second. But with the hindsight of a mere six weeks, how to explain why 235 of the party's 239 member caucus believed that tax cuts for the rich and bread and water for the middle class was a smart political move?

The over weaning hubris of Ryan, Boehner and Eric Cantor, as well as an unwitting assist from a mainstream media and punditocracy that in a spectacularly superficial way anointed the plan as "serious" without bothering to understand its underlying ideological evil. That's why.

Jack Kemp, Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate in 1996, represented NY-26 in the 1970s and 80s, and even then he was a moderate among conservatives. Today 66 percent of district voters identify themselves as moderate to very conservative, yet President Obama is more popular than Boehner, according to two polls, and voters by a substantial margin say Republicans are doing a worse job in the House than Democrats.


Conventional political wisdom has it that there is a danger in reading too much into special elections, in this case an election that was 18 months before the next national election.

Excuse me, but pundits said the same thing about the November 2009 special election to the north of NY-26 in Republican-heavy and even more conservative NY-23, which was widely viewed as a referendum on President Obama's popularity one year on.

The outcome was the same, although with an election eve twist: Democrat Bill Owens came out of nowhere to defeat favored Conservative Party candidate and attack dog Doug Hoffman after Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out and threw her support to Owens.

And so based on NY-26 and NY-23, let's stick a big asterisk on the conventional wisdom about special elections. Yes, they usually are outliers, but when they are held during times of dramatic political and social upheaval -- the election of Barack Obama and then the emergence two years later of the ultra-conservative Tea Party -- then special elections can mean a lot.

NY-26, like NY-23, is being called a national bellwether, and the ringing in the ears of vulnerable Republicans will only grow louder. As will calls for the ouster of a House leadership that spent too much time preening and too little time on Main Street

Also on tap: A symbolic vote on the Ryan plan in the Senate that is sure to be defeated, but will be a test of Republican will in the wake of an upstate New York wake-up call.

Photograph by Brendan Babbos for The New York Times

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